Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Greenspan sees six months of growth ahead

(China Daily)

WASHINGTON: The US economy is probably due for two strong quarters of economic growth to close out 2009, but the recovery may falter next year, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said.

"I think we're OK for the next six months," Greenspan said. "We are getting a recovery in (housing) starts and motor vehicles, but the process doesn't have legs to it."

Auto sales and housing, normally the driving forces behind economic recovery, got a boost from government efforts such as the $3 billion "cash-for-clunkers" trade-in program, which encouraged consumers to buy new cars, but it may not be sustainable.

Greenspan, who stepped down as Fed chairman in 2006 after 18 years at the helm, said the US market for autos was "saturated", with 20 percent more cars and light trucks on the road than there are licensed drivers.

With US consumers' finances still shaky after three years of housing market declines, new vehicle sales may fade once the clunker program's cash is exhausted.

As for new home sales, a sharp drop in construction is helping homebuilders clear inventory, but Greenspan said it was unlikely that the rate of US homeownership would return to the boomtime peak, which will keep home sales subdued.

While he has been lauded for presiding over the longest uninterrupted period of economic growth in modern US history from 1991 to 2001, his record has recently come under harsher scrutiny.

Critics argue that under his leadership, the Fed kept short-term borrowing costs too low for too long after the 2001 recession, sowing the seeds of the housing and easy credit bubble that contributed to the financial crisis.

Greenspan has defended his record repeatedly, saying global forces overwhelmed the US central bank's efforts to raise borrowing costs.

What gives him confidence that the last half of 2009 will generate strong growth is primarily a sharp drop in inventories of goods.

Consumption has been running about 1.25 percentage points above the level of economic output. In order to close that gap, companies need to make more goods, which would generate gross domestic product growth on the order of 4 percent to 5 percent if it happened all in one quarter and 2.5 percent per quarter if spread out over six months.

Society Cancer patient 'denied work' in E China

By Chen Jia (China Daily)

Xiao Shen, a 33-year-old woman from Zhejiang province, has won a fight against kidney cancer but has lost a fight against an employer who discriminated against her because of her cancer history.

"I could only get a temporary contract even though I passed the exam twice for a permanent job as an midwife in my hospital," she was quoted by the Qianjiang Evening News as saying yesterday.

"This is unfair for cancer patients. Employers' discrimination is harder to take than being a cancer patient," she said.

Shen, who declined to be identified for her privacy, said she suffered cancer seven years ago but has recovered fully after a successful operation.

She has worked for a hospital in Wenzhou city of Zhejiang for more than 10 years. Her left kidney was removed in an operation in 2003 and she was cured of the cancer.

She took the exam to become a formal midwife in 2005, and she ranked sixth among the candidates. However, hospital exam authorities suggested she postpone the application on the grounds that she needed more time to recover from her operation.

"I took their suggestion as I thought I still had a chance at that time," she said.

Another four years passed, and Shen took the exam again this August, receiving the highest score among those who took the exam.

But she did not pass the physical checkup due to her cancer history, even though her cancer recheck showed she had a stable health situation, with no evidence of a cancer reoccurrence.

According to the local health authority, the employment standards for the health system are similar to the health requirements for civil servant jobs, according to the news report.

"We deny her application because of her cancer history in line with Article 8 of the regulation on physical inspection standards for civil servants," an anonymous Ouhai Health Bureau official was quoted as saying yesterday by Qianjiang Evening News.

A patient who has a benign tumor or hepatocirrhosis is unqualified to be a civil servant, the regulation says.

But a related interpretation of the regulation stipulates that people who have recovered from a benign tumor with no signs of reoccurrence should be treated as qualified after being checked by medical experts.

Huang Baishu, a doctor at the Ruian Hospital who conducted Shen's checkup, reportedly acknowledged that the decision to disqualify her was based on the regulation for civil servant jobs, though her checkup indexes were normal.

Cancer rates in China soared 41.48 percent from 1990 to 2000 and is expected to increase nearly 28 percent from 2000 to 2010 due to the high rates of tobacco use, worsening pollution, and an aging population whose life expectancy has nearly doubled to 71.1 years since 1949, according to the medical portal

Kashmir's climate frontline

By Rebecca Byerly in Srinagar - Al Jazeera:

Kashmir's climate frontline
By Rebecca Byerly in Srinagar

Farmers say the Kashmiri saffron harvest is down by up to 40 per cent [Credit: Hubert]

"We used to have good money in saffron," says Ali Mohammed, a weathered 46-year-old farmer, as he looks over the fields of purple flowers ready for the autumn harvest in Indian-administered Kashmir. "But now no rain for months, bad saffron crop this year."

Used as a spice and for medicinal purposes, saffron has been grown in Kashmir for millennia. Mohammed's family have farmed the crop for five generations, but as the weather patterns in Kashmir change, they wonder how much longer their business can survive.

Kashmir is beginning to recover from two decades of bloody conflict. But the region, once known as "Paradise on Earth" because of its stunning natural beauty and abundant resources, is now facing another crisis - a changing climate.

The thousands of glaciers in the Western Himalaya Mountains that wind through Kashmir are receding as fast as any on the planet, melting due to increased temperatures.

This causes heavy flooding in the region, which is followed by drought during critical planting times. The early glacier melt, combined with a decrease in rainfall and snowfall, directly affects farmers like Mohammed.

Lack of research

in depth
Like many of the countries in the Northern Hemisphere, Kashmir has felt the effects of climate change over the past decade. But little research has been done to measure the specific effects of the phenomenon in the region.

"The local people and farmers know the environment is changing, but what they don't know is how they will adapt," says Dr. Shakil Romshoo, a professor in the department of geology and geophysics at Kashmir University.

"Critical measurements in food security policies and better water management practices must be addressed if the region's horticulture is to be sustainable in the future."

As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss future carbon emissions and how to minimise the effects of climate change, Kashmir is looking for ways to shrink its own carbon footprint.

Emissions could be lowered by reducing the number of cars in the state, shifting people's diets to vegetarianism, building a tourism industry that focuses on eco-tourism, and by ending the rampant deforestation throughout the state.

But this is just a tiny part of a solution to a much bigger problem. If the decisions made at Copenhagen are going to have an impact each nation will have to make changes.

Resolutions cannot stop the early bloom of crops throughout the Northern Hemisphere, or the recession of Kashmir's glaciers. But they can help people in this region and across the world adapt and make more informed environmental decisions.

Rise in temperatures

Kashmir's farmers face an uncertain future [Credit: Hubert]

According to the Indian Meteorological Agency, temperatures in Kashmir have risen by over one degree Celsius and are expected to continue rising at .05 degrees Celsius each year.

Ali Mohammed does not know about the changes in degrees, but knows what he sees when it comes to changes in weather patterns.

"In the past the snow would start falling in December, but now the snow does not come until February and March, and it only snows a few inches," he says.

The data collected by Romshoo over the last 10 years shows that temperatures were consistently warmer than the average of the 50 years between 1947 and 1998. He says that the warmer winters have led to less snowfall and exponential increases in both the melting of snow and glaciers in the spring and summer.

"The increase in temperatures will also have an effect on drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower," he says.

Dr. Jim Jarvie heads the Climate Unit at Mercy Corps, an international aid agency. "Countries around the world who find themselves dependent on glacial water systems will have two interrelated shocks in store," he says.

Traditional rainfall water supply practices will have to be revised so that proper irrigation systems can be implemented, he says. He also thinks that long-term glacier recession could lead to the demise of even the most basic water supplies.

He compares the change in Kashmir's climate to global projections and believes that similar adaptations, like drought resistant crops, should be applied.

Changing crops

Romshoo agrees. "Though climate change is a global phenomenon, we can combat it by changing our crops from rice paddies that are highly water intensive to crops that need less water," he says.

Dr. Nazeer Khan, the director of the Central Institute of Temperate Horticulture (CITH) in Kashmir, believes that if diversified crops are used and better horticulture practices are adopted, crops will fare well in the next 20 years.

"The productivity of some crops is expected to increase with the slight one to two degree Celsius rise in temperature, provided there is sufficient precipitation," Khan says. "As the temperatures rise, apples are already growing in more hilly areas. There are now pears, peaches, and apricots where the apple orchards once were."

He believes that crops like walnut trees, which require little water and have shallow root systems, are viable options for the future. While this is encouraging, saffron, a water intensive crop, will not fare as well.

Rainwater harvesting and alternative crop selections are two of the practices that are just starting to be discussed in Kashmir. But Jarvie emphasises that more needs to be done.

"We need to engage national governments and regional bodies in taking the threat to farming communities seriously, and allocating serious budget streams towards protecting farmers, and overall national food security," he says.

Programmes like this would directly affect farmers like Mohammed.

Local knowledge key

Though there are climate models that attempt to downscale data to district level, Jarvie believes that the most reliable sources of information on climate change are the local people who watch their environment and livelihoods change.

"What we do know is that yes, we are seeing a real warming pattern. How that pattern is felt comes largely from anecdotal evidence exactly like the farmers are providing; changes in flowering patterns and bird nesting times; trends in shifts in local rain patterns."

"These two data sources - broad scale climate models corroborated by independent local information - are in agreement and reinforce not only the reality of the problem, but also that the problem is already being felt by some of the world's most vulnerable communities."

People like Ali Mohammed may have to face the reality that the warming of Kashmir is going to demand a shift in thinking, planning and planting choices. If they do not, then their way of life will, like Kashmir's shrinking glaciers, melt away with the changing climate.

Rebecca Byerly is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Brazil's river of death

By Gabriel Elizondo in Manaquiri, Brazil - Al Jazeera:

Thousands of fish in the river have been killed by a sharp drop in water oxygen levels [ELIZONDO]

The once free-flowing Manaquiri River, which runs through the state of Amazonas in northwest Brazil, is in the fight of its life against a spell of dry weather - and it appears to be losing the battle.

Thousands of dead fish are rotting on the river banks and hundreds more float on its surface, turning the area into a toxic cesspool.

Vultures circle overhead, picking away at the rotting carcasses. Even an alligator - one of the fiercest reptiles of the Amazon - floats belly up in the river.

Local fishermen say it has not rained in more than 25 days, leaving the large surrounding rivers in recession. This has in turn choked off the tributaries that provide fresh water to the Manaquiri.

With no fresh water coming in, oxygen levels in the river have dropped, leaving the fish to suffocate to death.

"One week the river water levels dropped, the next week all the fish died," Bruno dos Santos, a fisherman, told Al Jazeera.

"In five days all the fish were dead. We have nothing left, only this ugly water."

Fishermen unemployed

The town of Manaquiri lies about three hours from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, and is home to a population of nearly 20,000, 800 of whom are fishermen. "All are unemployed now," says dos Santos.

When Al Jazeera visited the town last week, water levels were so low that fishing boats were beached on the banks, immobile.

Fishermen, like Antonio Faria, are unable to find work due to the drought [Elizondo]

"I used to make 100 or 200 reais ($57-$114) a day, but now nothing," fisherman Gevaldo Maciel says.

"All I do all day now is eat, sleep and drink water. We are prisoners here, because the water is so low if we try to get to another river our boats will get stuck. So what are we supposed to do?"

Estimates suggest that the 14,000 of the town's inhabitants who rely on the river as an economic lifeline are being adversely affected by the water shortage.

In November, local media reported that local schools suspended classes for 2,600 children who used the river as a means of transportation.

Some Amazon scientists warn that the drying up of the Manaquiri River may signal similar droughts occurring with higher frequency as the climate continues to change.

"This is something that fits with the climate changes that are happening now and that are expected to increase in the future," says Philip Fearnside, a research professor in the Department of Ecology at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus.

"We have an El Nino [weather pattern] beginning this year and that means that water is warming up in the Pacific Ocean. Whenever that happens we have droughts here in the Amazon."

Climate change 'fact'

Fearnside, who has lived in the Amazon for the past 33 years and is considered one of Brazil's top ecologists, says climate change theories are not built on speculation.

"This is something we have experience with and know from the data, it's not something that depends on the outcome of a computer simulation," he adds.

He says that while droughts can occur without climate change, such events are more likely to develop in a warming climate.

For the fishermen passing time on their now idle boats on the Manaquiri, the stench of fish carcasses baking under the sun is a constant reminder of their dwindling livelihood.

The ice chest on Antonio Farias' boat, which used to be filled with fish, is now empty. Although he admits that he has no scientific expertise, he does offer his own theories for the cause of his community's misery.

"I think this is related to some changes in the climate," he says.

"Because for us, it's been over 20 days without rain here. This was a surprise, because we have never experienced this before. It's sad, all the dead fish."

As Al Jazeera prepared to leave Manaquiri toward the end of the week, rain twice fell on the region , breaking the dry spell.

However, the fishermen say the damage has already been done. It will take a year at least, they say, for the river to recover.

Iran's slow revolution

By Adla Massoud - Al Jazeera:

Six months after Iran's disputed presidential election triggered widespread demonstrations, the country's pro-democracy movement is as strong as ever, experts say.

As this week's protests show, opponents of Iran's regime have taken to using officially sanctioned demonstrations to turn out in large numbers and publicise their message.

But do not expect another revolution.

"This is a civil rights movement working through self-propelling acts of civil disobedience," Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, says. "It will change the very political language of the region."

Asef Bayat, a sociologist and Middle East expert, agrees. Speaking at a panel discussion last week, he argued that Iranian society is beginning to shed its revolutionary tendencies.

"Iranians once saw liberation as simply overthrowing an unjust shah, without much thought as to what would come next," he said. "Thirty years later, that definition has grown to include concepts of individual civil liberties. This has led to a far more mature civil society, that seeks change in increments, not explosive revolution."

Forged in opposition

"There's a call for political secularism emerging in Iran"

Behzad Yaghmaiam, Iranian author
The so-called 'Green Movement' was formed after hundreds of thousands of supporters of Mir Hussein Mousavi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main rival in the presidential elections, took to the streets to protest the result of the poll.

They believed that Ahmadinejad had orchestrated a massive campaign of vote-rigging that returned him to power unfairly. The demonstrations were met with a brutal crackdown, sanctioned by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

Eventually the protests died down and the 'Green Revolution' lost its news value. The Iranian opposition disappeared from the mainstream media and went back underground, manifesting itself in postings on Facebook and Twitter and in snippets of mobile phone video posted to Youtube.

While it may not be visible, some believe it is effective. Behzad Yaghmaian, an Iranian author living in the US, says that a more politically mature and multi-layered movement is emerging, and that its strength derives in large part from its non-violent character.

Even Iranian children are setting an example, he says, recounting the story of a 12-year-old student who refused to step on an American flag before entering the classroom. "People of another country love this flag. Why should I disrespect them?" she asked her teacher.

Yaghmaian believes the grassroots movement has bypassed the limited political demands of Mousavi and other reformist leaders and has become a more profound movement fighting for human rights. There is, he says, little desire to work within the framework of a theocratic political regime.

Taking risks

Protestors are aware of the regime's willingness to use force against them [AFP]
For the first time in 30 years, people on the streets of Iran are openly rejecting the constitution of the Islamic Republic and demanding a secular republic.

"There's a call for political secularism emerging in Iran, a call that is coming out of the movement itself," he says.

In making that call, the demonstrators are taking a risk. Iranians are well aware of the regime's willingness to use force against them, and as a result, much of the political organising is done out of view of the authorities.

"They cannot have a fully fledged organised structured movement in the way that you have in Western countries, because they would easily be the target of appraisal and repression," Asef Bayat explains.

Instead, Iran's Green Movement operates through loose networks of friends, family, and colleagues, says Yaghmaian. The risks are enormous.

In the first half of 2009 alone, there were 196 executions in Iran. Former officials, intellectuals and journalists have received long prison sentences after brief televised trials and torture by the authorities is commonplace.

"The human rights situation has deteriorated considerably," says Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "Capital punishment is on the rise and execution sentences for political prisoners has resumed. Torture and even rape of detainees have taken place."

Despites this, Ghaemi believes nothing will deter Iran's burgeoning civil rights movement. He says: "It will seize every opportunity to display its resilience."

Palestine 'paying for occupation'

By Sousan Hammad - Al Jazeera:

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) recently reported that the Palestinian economy has hit an all-time low.

With the Middle East peace process locked in stalemate, Al Jazeera speaks to Atif Kubursi, a professor of economics at Canada's McMaster University and a former UN development expert, about the future of the Palestinian economy under occupation.

Al Jazeera: Why are Palestinians unable to independently trade on the world market? What impact does that have on the local economy?

Atif Kubursi: The major issue is water with agriculture becoming a corollary. The whole issue is that [the Israelis] govern the water accumulated under the hills of the West Bank and prevent the Palestinians from using it, while averting these water supplies to settlements and other Israeli uses.

This is not a secret. It is public information that more than one third of Israel's water consumption comes from natural supplies in the West Bank.

The second issue is the Israelis have prevented the Palestinians from generating income and sustenance derived from their land. Palestinians produce more than the Israelis, and more efficiently, but Israelis have, in many respects - particularly in fruits and vegetables - burdened the Palestinians so they can't compete with the Israelis.

Some of the road blocks, people believe, have acted as a barrier and prevented the Palestinians from delivering cheaper and fresher fruit to the Israeli market.

And the general situation is that fertiliser costs - along with all the other manufacturing costs - are now much higher in the West Bank than the rest of the Arab world, which was the traditional market destination for the Palestinians.

The PA has been trying to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for many years now. Saeb Bamya, a senior adviser to the now resigned PA minister of economy, said a WTO membership would allow Palestinians to "join the multilateral trading system." Would this really open trade for Palestinians?

Anything that would liberate the Palestinians from the Israeli stranglehold, I would like. But it's only one aspect. The dependency is so ingrained. Palestinians cannot import all their materials, and they can only export on Israeli terms.

I would be very happy to see the Palestinians developing an alternative market to the Israelis, but is this a chance to gain economic independence? I doubt it, because the structures are all rigged in favour of Israel.

We need full liberation and full independence. And if the Palestinians would like to recreate a Palestinian union, let it be from a position of strength, and with a position of alternatives - people who don't have alternatives always lose.

There is no bargain when someone fights with their hands tied behind their back.

Would increasing agricultural output make the economy more productive?

I don't really want to consider this to be the only alternative open to Palestinians, but surely it will be one alternative. I'm not so sure the Palestinians can compete - given the Israeli costs that are now imposed on their economy - with the Syrians, Lebanese or Jordanians.

There's an echoing sentiment in Ramallah that Israeli produce not only tastes better but is also more nutritious.

This is a case of the Palestinians legitimising their occupation and their disenfranchisement. First, the Israelis control the water; they also control and implement the prices of all the machinery and fertiliser the Palestinians can use.

At the same time, the Israelis subsidise and advertise their products and create this kind of humiliating situation.

How can the Palestinians resolve this situation?

No economist will tell you that there is a possibility of development in the Palestinian economy while it is under occupation. There first needs to be a liberation of society in order to liberate the economy.

Currently, there is no chance that the Palestinians can develop an independent and viable state when the strong rule the weak.

The Israeli government has taxed Palestinians to a situation where the poor subsidise the rich.

Palestinians are paying for their occupation. Israel quickly devoured all things we economists call comparative advantage by the way they control Palestinian water and agriculture.

The Palestinians cannot survive under these circumstances. It really is a testimony to the resilience of the Palestinians that under such conditions they are able to survive.

We really need to cut into the matrix of control, these subjugation mechanisms used by the Israelis.

It should not have to be isolated, independent or small measures. Don't believe this will liberate the Palestinian people.

What we need is to re-galvanise the Palestinians into believing they have to take their destiny into their own hands. There is no way Palestinians can have any meaningful economy unless they gain their independence.

Hamas vows to continue resistance

By Al Jazeera:

Ismail Haniya, the de facto Hamas prime minister in Gaza, has vowed to continue his movement's "resistance and struggle" against Israel, as Hamas marked its 22nd anniversary.

Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in Gaza City on Monday, Haniya said that Middle East peace talks had "failed".

"Negotiations have failed, and the negotiators said after 18 years that the result is zero," he told the crowd, who were dressed in the party's green and waving flags.

"We say today in the name of the Palestinian people ... Hamas will not go back on its line of resistance and struggle until it achieves for our people their freedom and independence, God willing."

A male singing troupe dressed in military camouflage shouted: "Gaza is free. Gaza is steadfast," as they marched in procession.


Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip two years ago after forcing out security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and leader of the rival Fatah faction.

Organisers said the celebrations revelead growing popularity for the political movement.

"The Palestinian people's trust in the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, increases day by day," Abu Talha, head of popular activities in Hamas, told the Reuters news agency.

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from Gaza, said it was "incredibly important" for Hamas that significant numbers turn up at the rally, with ongoing hardships in the strip threatening to affect the movement's popularity.

"People have come here today and they are still supporting Hamas' control over Gaza," she said.

Gaza is continuing to struggle with poverty amid an ongoing blockade, while also recovering from Israel's war on the territory earlier in the year.

Hamas has been unable to rebuild homes, sewage lines and water pipes destroyed in the offensive because Israel and Egypt continue to enforce a border blockade.

Basic goods, such as food and some medicines are allowed into Gaza, but construction materials are not.

Gaza blockade

Israel first sealed Gaza's borders in June 2006 after fighters captured Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier.

It was tightened a year later, when Hamas took control of the coastal strip, ousting forces loyal to Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was formed in 1987 at the beginning of the first intifada against Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

The group, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings since the 1990s, is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the US and European Union.

The group aims to establish an Islamic state in the region and does not recognise Israel's right to exist.

It has also opposed plans by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to seek a permanent deal with Israel.

Gulf nations sign monetary pact

By Al Jazeera:

A Gulf monetary union pact has been agreed by four of the six nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council at a summit in Kuwait, the country's finance minister has said.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia signed and ratified the pact on Tuesday, which will see them work towards setting up a joint central bank and implementing a single currency.

The United Arab Emirates, the Gulf's second largest economy, opted out of the union over objections to selecting the Saudi capital, Riyadh as the base for the future Gulf central bank.

Oman said it could not meet the union's prerequisites for joining at this time.

"The Gulf monetary union pact has come into effect," Mustafa al-Shamali, Kuwait's foreign minister, was quoted by the official Kuna news agency as saying.

"Accordingly, GCC central bank governors will work out a timetable for the establishment of the Gulf central bank to ultimately launch the single currency."

Al-Shamali said that he expected the UAE and Oman to join the monetary union "in the near future".

Under the pact, a Gulf monetary council to be established early next year would set up the stage for a central bank which would then issue a single currency.

Iraqi oil

Al-Shamali's announcement came as GCC leaders concluded their two-day annual summit in the capital, Kuwait City, during which they discussed a number of economic integration projects and political issues.

"We do not accept any military action against Iran. Any tension in the region will reflect on our situation. We have many problems already and we don't want any more"

Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah, Kuwait's foreign minister
The energy-rich bloc addressed Iraq's decision to award a number of contracts to international oil companies with the aim of boosting its crude production from a current 2.5 million barrels per day to around 10 million bpd over the next several years.

"We are not threatened by Iraq's plans to expand its oil production," Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah, Kuwait's foreign minister, whose country is the current president of the GCC, said.

The GCC boasts around 45 per cent of the global proven crude reserves and as much as one-quarter of the world's gas resources.

It pumps around 15 million bpd of crude, or just under one-fifth of world consumption.

The summit also tackled Iran's controversial nuclear programme, the Middle East peace process, calls for a crackdown on groups accused of causing trouble in northern Yemen, and economic co-operation in a volatile world market.

"We do not accept any military action against Iran," Al-Sabah said at the end of the summit.

"Any tension in the region will reflect on our situation. We have many problems already and we don't want any more."

'Peaceful means'

The final communique of the Gulf summit said its leaders welcome "international efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear programme crisis through peaceful means".

The West accuses Iran of working to develop a nuclear bomb but Tehran has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes.

The six nations also agreed to establish a joint rapid reaction military force to tackle security threats, such as the incursion by Yemen's Houthi rebels into Saudi Arabia last month.

"The force will be one of the pillars that will support stability and security in the region," Abdul-Rahman al-Attiyah, the secretary-general of the GCC, said.

The Gulf states, a number of which host US military bases, have spent billions of dollars boosting their armed forces since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Kuwaiti PM cleared of corruption

By Al Jazeera:

The Kuwaiti Prime Minister has survived an opposition bid to depose him over corruption allegations.

Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah was questioned on Wednesday over claims he issued a $700,000 cheque to a former member of parliament (MP) and that his office misappropriated millions of dollars of public funds.

Thirty-five MPs voted against a non-cooperation motion brought against the prime minister, which was filed last week following intense questioning.

Thirteen MPs voted for the unprecedented motion and one abstained, speaker Jassem al-Khorafi, said.

The motion required at least 25 votes of the 49 elected members of parliament to pass, with cabinet ministers banned from such votes.

Had it been passed, the motion would have been sent to the Emir, Sheikh Nasser's uncle.

He who would have either dismissed the prime minister or dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections.

It was the first time a Kuwaiti head of government has been questioned in parliament since democracy was introduced to the oil rich state in 1962.

Improve cooperation

Following his victory, the prime minister reiterated his strong commitment to the country's constitution and democracy.

He also urged MPs to turn a new page and to improve cooperation between the government and parliament.

Al-Khorafi asked the premier to work for the stability of oil rich Kuwait and to rectify mistakes that he was accused of committing.

Since Sheikh Nasser was appointed in February 2006, Kuwait has been rocked with political instability.

He has resigned five times and formed six different cabinets.

Blair 'misled British over Iraq'

By Al Jazeera:

Tony Blair, Britain's former prime minister, has been accused by a retired senior official of "sycophancy" towards the US administration and of using "alarming subterfuge" to lead the UK into the war with Iraq.

Ken Macdonald, Britain's former senior prosecutor, made the comments after Blair admitted that the country would have backed the Iraq war even if he knew it did not have weapons of mass destruction.

Blair, who backed George Bush, the former US president, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said he would "still have thought it right to remove" Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, because of the threat he posed to the region.

Blair's comments to the BBC on Sunday led to calls for his prosecution for war crimes.

Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, accused Blair in The Times newspaper on Monday of committing "alarming subterfuge" to mislead the British people into supporting the war.

"It is now very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tony Blair engaged in an alarming subterfuge with his partner George Bush and went on to mislead and cajole the British people into a deadly war they had made perfectly clear they didn't want, and on a basis that it's increasingly hard to believe even he found truly credible," he said.

"This was a foreign policy disgrace of epic proportions and playing footsie on Sunday morning television does nothing to repair the damage."

Macdonald said that "Blair's fundamental flaw was his sycophancy towards those in power ... Washington turned his head and he couldn’t resist the stage or the glamour that it gave him".

Iraq inquiry

Macdonald, who works at the same law chambers as Blair's wife, challenged the head of a public inquiry into the war "to reveal the truth without fear."

Blair is due to give evidence to the British inquiry, led by former civil servant John Chilcot, early next year.

Reports suggesting Blair may back away from giving evidence in public were dismissed by an inquiry spokesman.

The unnamed spokesman told The Times: "Mr Blair will be appearing very much in public and will be questioned in detail on a wide range of issues."

Macdonald has suggested that the inquiry's performance has so far been generally unchallenging.

He said: "If Chilcot fails to reveal truth without fear in this Middle Eastern story of violence and destruction, the inquiry will be held in deserved and withering contempt."

Blair justified the war on the basis of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles and its non-compliance with UN weapons inspections, in defiance of numerous UN resolutions.

The alleged chemical and biological weapons were never found.

Nato seeks Afghan help from Russia

By Al Jazeera:

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, has urged Russia to co-operate more closely with the Western military alliance in Afghanistan during talks in Moscow with Dmitry Medvedev, the country's president.

Rasmussen said that it was in Russia's interest to contribute more actively to Nato's mission in Afghanistan because failure there would raise the threat of terrorism throughout the region.

The secretary general said: "If Afghanistan once again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, then Russia would be among the victims, as terrorists could easily spread from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Russia."

Medvedev told Rasmussen that the Kremlin was ready to boost co-operation with Nato, after a period of tension between the two sides following Russia's war with Georgia last year which was condemned by the organisation.

'Shared threats'

Rasmussen, making his first visit to Moscow since becoming the head of Nato, said: "I would very much like to discuss how we can further Russian engagement in our operation in Afghanistan."

Medvedev said: "We have many reasons for interaction, many subjects for discussion.

"These are the challenges that exist in the world: terrorism, crime, the need to counter shared threats, regional challenges."

In particular, Rasmussen said Russia could help by contributing more helicopters.

Referring to his talks with Medvedev, he said: "I suggested a helicopter package. I think Russia could contribute in a very concrete way by providing helicopters, helicopter training and spare parts."

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, who also held talks with Rasmussen, said that Medvedev would consider the request.

Afghan supplies

Relations between Nato and Russia have improved significantly since they were frozen for six months in the aftermath of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Moscow has repeatedly expressed its willingness to help the war effort in Afghanistan, due to fears that any return to power by the Taliban could destabilise Central Asia and endanger Russia's own security.

The Kremlin has allowed Nato nations to use its territory for the overland transport of supplies to Afghanistan but ties remain strained over the possible absorption of Georgia and Ukraine into the military alliance.

Russia has objected to the plans, which are in their infancy and not likely to be implemented any time soon, and sees them as Western meddling in its own backyard.

Moscow was expected to raise the issue of creating alternative global security treaties such as a plan recently put forward by Medvedev for an all-embracing Euro-Atlantic agreement.

Row over Sri Lanka 'kill orders'

By Al Jazeera:

he Sri Lankan government has accused the former head of the country's military of "betrayal" after he alleged senior officials ordered the killing of surrendering Tamil Tiger leaders during the last days of the country's civil war.

General Sarath Fonseka said in comments published in a national newspaper on Sunday that Sri Lanka's defence minister, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, had told military commanders that no prisoners should be taken during the final offensive in May.

Speaking to the Sunday Leader, Fonseka was quoted as saying Rajapakse had ordered "they must all be killed", referring to leaders of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Fonseka led the army's final offensive against the LTTE, but later fell out with the president and the defence secretary.

Responding to the claims, Sri Lanka's human rights minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, accused Fonseka of lying.

"[This is] the greatest ever betrayal based on an untruth, ever made in the history of this country"

Mahinda Samarasinghe,
Sri Lankan human rights minister
In a statement posted on a government website, he said Fonseka's allegations were "the greatest ever betrayal based on an untruth, ever made in the history of this country".

Fonseka later appeared to try to distance himself from the Sunday Leader report, saying he had been misquoted.

Al Jazeera's Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Colombo, said Fonseka told reporters he had been told of the order by a journalist who had been embedded with the military at the time.

Fonseka has not identified the journalist involved.

The only four-star general to have served in the Sri Lankan military, Fonseka said he was away in China when the alleged orders were given.

He said he had not been aware that the defence minister was giving direct orders to officers in the field in the final stages of battle.

Fonseka said it was not until after the war had ended that he learnt that senior Tiger rebels had used foreign mediators to organise a plan in which they would carry white flags and give themselves up.


Fonseka is contesting upcoming presidential elections against the defence minister's brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The army's final offensive in May brought an end to decades of civil war [Reuters]
A spokesman for the Sri Lankan military gave no comment on Fonseka's allegations.

"This is a comment given by General Fonseka and he will come out with many more," Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told the AFP news agency.

"We will not comment on what he says."

The Sri Lankan government claimed victory over the LTTE on May 18 after the army wiped out the rebel leadership in a final fierce battle.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, the group's founder, was killed in the fighting and his body shown on national television.

Sri Lankan authorities have resisted international calls for a investigation into allegations of war crimes committed during the conflict after the United Nations alleged that more than 7,000 civilians were killed during the first four months of this year alone.

Fonseka has said he will consider ordering an investigation if he is elected president.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Al-Qaeda leader 'killed' in US raid

By Al Jazeera:

A raid by a US drone aircraft in northwest Pakistan has killed a senior al-Qaeda leader, a US government official has said.

Saleh al-Somali, the man in charge of al-Qaeda's operations outside the Afghan-Pakistan region, was killed by a missile on Tuesday, the official, who declined to be named, said on Friday.

The official said that al-Somali was engaged in plotting attacks throughout the world, which probably included plans against targets in the US and Europe.

"Al-Somali was part of al-Qaeda's senior leadership circle, and he maintained connections to other Pakistan-based extremists who were plotting attacks against their own country and Afghanistan," he said.

"He took strategic guidance from [al Qaeda's] top leadership and translated it into operational blueprints for prospective terrorist attacks," the official said.

"He maintained relationships with al-Qaeda's allies in East Africa, such as the terrorist group al-Shabab."

The Pakistani officials said that Tuesday's attack targeted a car in Aspalga village, about 12km southeast of Miranshah, the main town of the North Waziristan tribal district, which borders Afghanistan.

North Waziristan neighbours South Waziristan, where Pakistan deployed about 30,000 troops in October as part of its offensive against the Taliban, which is considered to have links to al-Qaeda.

Taliban 'targeting' Pakistan spies

By Al Jazeera:

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has said that extremist groups involved in attacks on US and Nato forces in Afghanistan "have been taking refuge across the border in Pakistan".

To fight that, Washington has been cultivating a relationship with the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's spy agency.

But as Imran Khan reports, the ISI are now facing their own struggle, as the Taliban turn on them.

Red Cross visits Taliban captives

By Al Jazeera:

The International Committee of the Red Cross has for the first time visited prisoners held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Red Cross, or ICRC, said in a statement that it had twice visited three members of the Afghan security forces held by the Taliban in the northwest Baghdis province.

Reto Stocker, the group's head of delegation in Kabul, speaking to Al Jazeera on Wednesday called the visit an "achievement".

"I think this really has created an environment where there is a basic trust in the ICRC [Red Cross]. I think we are credible and predictable," he said.

The visits, which took place at the end of November, mark the first time the ICRC has visited people held by the Taliban since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

"We plan to conduct and repeat visits in other regions, and hope to visit people held by other armed opposition groups, with the aim of ensuring that everyone detained in relation to the armed conflict is treated humanely," Stocker told the media earlier.

US soldier held

The ICRC has said it is unable to give a reliable estimate of the number of people held by the Taliban or other armed groups in Afghanistan.

Carla Haddad Mardini, an ICRC spokesperson, said that efforts were continuing to get access to Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier who was captured by the Taliban in June.

"For the ICRC, access to this prisoner remains a priority," Mardini said.

"We are in contact with different armed groups, different people, different parties to try to gain access to this person and ensure he can re-establish contact with his family".

Bergdahl was the the first US soldier to be seized by the Taliban since the US-led invasion.

Legal protections

The ICRC has visited 136 places of detention in Afghanistan and has registered more than 16,000 people since the US-led invasion that forced the Taliban from power.

"International humanitarian law grants the same protection to everyone held in connection with the armed conflict, whether the detaining party is the international or Afghan security forces or the armed opposition," said Stocker.

The ICRC has been active in Afghanistan since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the country, said Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva.

"In Afghanistan for years we have been in touch and engaging in discussions and dialogue with [the] Taliban because they are simply party to the conflict," he said.

Business Japan machinery orders tumble

By Al Jazeera:

Fresh economic figures from Japan have cast further doubt on the strength of the country's economic recovery.

Data released on Thursday showed core machinery orders – an indicator of corporate capital spending, and thus of Japanese companies' confidence in the economy - tumbling 4.5 per cent in October from a month earlier.

The fall suggests companies are cutting back on spending as the country's economic recovery slows.

Machinery orders had spiked 10.5 per cent in September, apparently pointing towards growing corporate confidence.

But since then deflation has intensified and the Japanese currency, the yen, has strengthened against the dollar, pushing up the cost of Japanese exports.

Questions about the future of export demand as the effect of global stimulus measures wanes have also added to corporate unease.

The data is based on figures from 280 manufacturers polled by Japan's Cabinet Office, but excludes orders from shipbuilders and electric power companies which tend to fluctuate more.

Growth revised

The statement follows Wednesday's surprise announcement that the country's economy grew much more slowly in the third quarter of this year than originally estimated.

According to revised government data, the world's number two economy grew at an annual pace of just 1.3 per cent, compared with the previous preliminary estimate of 4.8 per cent.

Officials said the revision stemmed largely from a misreading of capital investment data which was found to have fallen by 2.8 per cent from the previous quarter after the government incorporated additional data.

Capital investment measures spending by companies on equipment, factories and other assets.

The Cabinet Office had initially estimated that companies increased spending by 1.6 per cent.

China's economy picks up pace

By Al Jazeera:

China's economic recovery gained momentum in November, government statistics have shown, with industrial production, retail sales and investment all posting solid growth.

Consumer prices also rose for the first time in 10 months, climbing 0.6 per cent in November, the National Statistics Bureau reported.

According to the figures released on Friday industrial output rose 19.2 per cent in November over a year earlier, with the strongest growth in heavy industries such as coal, steel, power generation and autos.

The growth was boosted by reviving demand for exports and massive investment in factories and other construction which climbed 32.1 per cent in the first 11 months of the year.

Also in November retail sales – an increasingly important driver of growth in the Chinese economy - climbed 15.8 per cent in November from a year earlier to $166bn.

Earlier this week, the government moved to bolster the recovery by extending tax cuts and subsidies for purchases of small vehicles and appliances, while adjusting some measures to counter rising property prices.

Officials have pledged to continue policies aimed at countering the impact of the global downturn, including lax credit and lavish spending launched with a $586bn stimulus package a year ago.

In a separate report also released on Friday, customs figures showed the slump in Chinese exports continuing to ease as nascent recoveries in the US and other key markets helped revive demand.

According to data from the customs administration, exports fell 1.2 per cent in November, marking the smallest decline this year.

Imports into the world's third-largest economy were also seen to rebound strongly, rising 26.7 per cent over the same month last year.

The figures suggest the global recovery is gaining momentum as consumers in the US and other regions begin spending more after months of holding back.

Japan PM 'delays US base decision'

By Al Jazeera:

Japan's prime minister has reportedly delayed until next year a decision on the controversial relocation of a US military base on the southern island of Okinawa.

The dispute over the future of the Futenma air base has strained ties between the two allies and trading partners, with the US hoping for a decision by the end of this year.

According to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese prime minister, has deferred making the decision until May next year.

The paper said Japan would go ahead with preparations to move the airbase but explore alternative relocation sites before making a decision among the three parties making up the ruling coalition.

"New relocation options will be considered, but by setting a deadline for May next year, [the government] hopes to win the understanding of the United States," the mass circulation newspaper said.

A similar report on Japan's Kyodo newsagency said the decision had been put off until next year.


The plan under a 2006 deal agreed between the US and Japan is to relocate Futenma to a less crowded part of northern Okinawa, but Hatoyama has said the new site could be changed, perhaps even off the island.

Okinawa residents are unhappy about noise, pollution and crime from the base [AFP]
Okinawa is home to more than half the 47,000 US troops in Japan under a security pact, but their presence is regular source of friction with local residents that has led to mass protests.

Residents have regularly complained about base-related noise, pollution and crime, and many want the airfield closed and its functions moved off the island entirely.

The 2006 plan also involves moving some 8,000 marines from Okinawa to the US territory of Guam by 2014, but the US military says that plan cannot move forward until Futenma's replacement facility is finalised.

Hatoyama, whose party came to power in a landslide election in August, has promised that Tokyo would adopt a less subservient relationship with Washington, but has also stressed that the US security alliance was the cornerstone of Japan's diplomacy.

The plan to move Futenma is part of a broader realignment of US troops in Japan against a background of China's rising power in the region and an unpredictable North Korea.

N Korea arms jet crew face charges

By Al Jazeera:

Thai police have said they will charge the crew of an impounded cargo jet with illegal possession of weapons after authorities found their plane to be carrying arms from North Korea.

Authorities detained the crew when the Georgia-registered Ilyushin IL-76 jet carrying 35 tonnes of arms flew into Bangkok's Don Muang airport for refuelling on Saturday.

Al Jazeera's Aela Callan, reporting from Bangkok, said the five crew members - four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus – were brought before a judge on Monday morning who ordered them detained for another 12 days to face further questioning.

She said Alexandr Zrydnev, Ilyas Issakov, Viktor Abdullayev, Vitaliy Shunkov and Mikhail Petukhou denied the charges saying they had no idea they were transporting arms.

The charges of weapons possession without a license are relatively minor, our correspondent said, adding that police hoped to press more serious charges of arms smuggling.

Customs officials who inspected the chartered cargo plane say it contained rocket-propelled grenades, rocket launchers and missile tubes, surface-to-air missile launchers, spare parts and other heavy weapons.

The crew had declared to customs authorities that they were carrying oil drilling equipment.

US tip-off

Thai military and police sources who declined to be named said the US had alerted authorities about the plane's cargo, which flouted UN sanctions against North Korea.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman, said the authorities believed the plane had initially planned to refuel in Sri Lanka and it was not clear why the crew had asked to make an emergency landing in Bangkok to refuel and check a wheel.

"The Thai authorities acted on tips from intelligence agencies of many countries," he said.

Military officials in Colombo meanwhile said the consignment had not been destined for Sri Lanka.

"Why should Sri Lanka buy from North Korea when the same is available in China?" an unnamed official said.

On Saturday a Thai air force official involved in the inspection of the aircraft, who declined to be named, said the US asked authorities to investigate the plane and its cargo.

"We were approached by the United States, seeking our co-operation to examine the suspected plane. It came from North Korea and was heading for somewhere in South Asia, probably Pakistan," the official told Reuters.


Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, said authorities had acted in accordance with UN resolutions.

North Korea has been hit with fresh UN sanctions to punish it for a nuclear test in May.

The sanctions have been targeted in particular at sales of North Korean arms, a vital export estimated to earn the destitute state more than $1bn a year.

According to US officials the North's biggest arms sales come from ballistic missiles, with Iran and other Middle Eastern states being customers.

Analysts said the UN sanctions and the cut-off of handouts from South Korea have dealt a heavy blow to the North, which has an estimated GDP of $17bn, and may force it back into nuclear disarmament talks in the hopes of winning aid.

The seizure, one of the biggest ever in the international arms embargo against North Korea, also came days after the US president's special envoy made a rare three-day trip to the North on a mission to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

"There is a possibility that the incident could have a negative effect on moves to get the North to rejoin the six-party talks and a US-North Korea dialogue mood," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said.

North Korea's nuclear trump card

By Joe Havely - Al Jazeera

When North Korea announced for the first time in February 2005 that it had nuclear weapons, the claim was dismissed by the Bush administration as bluster and "rhetoric".

"North Korea's words and actions will only deepen their international isolation," Scott McClellan, the then White House spokesman, told reporters.

Eighteen months later, on October 6, 2006, the high-stakes poker game reached a critical point as North Korea called Washington's bluff and conducted its first nuclear test.

Whether that test was a success or not remains a matter of debate.

Some estimates have put the yield at less than a kilotonne – a relatively small blast in nuclear terms, leading to speculation that the main component of the device failed to detonate.

Dud or not, the political shockwaves from the underground blast were felt far and wide.

Now, almost a year and a half later, North Korea has conducted a second and reportedly much larger test – a gesture of defiance just two months after it triggered international outrage with its launch of a long-range rocket.

That combination – long-range rockets, plus atomic explosives - has many worried.

But exactly what kind of a threat does North Korea pose?

Ron Huisken, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Australian National University, says that the latest test is a signal the North is committed to retaining its nuclear capability.

But, he says, it does not in itself prove North Korea is a clear and present nuclear danger.

"North Korea can't actually do anything at this point," he told Al Jazeera.

"To the best of our knowledge, it hasn't actually weaponised its nuclear material. Certainly it hasn't miniaturised it to the point where you can put a bomb on an airplane or – even more technically demanding – on top of a missile."


The Yongbyon reactor is believed to have produced plutonium for about eight bombs
According to US estimates North Korea has extracted enough plutonium to build six to eight nuclear bombs.

The North itself has repeatedly referred to a nuclear "stockpile", which it says serves as a "deterrent" against what it sees as the imminent threat of US invasion.

Its nuclear plant at Yongbyon, which is believed to have resumed operations after the North abandoned six-party disarmament talks in April, is thought to be capable of producing enough plutonium for about one more bomb a year.

That may be the case, but it is important to bear in mind that much of what is said to be "known" about North Korea's nuclear programme is based on very limited intelligence.

Those limitations were shown most recently by the apparent ease with which the North – one of the world's poorest countries - was able to take the rest of the world by surprise with its latest test.

Weapons development

John Large, a UK-based nuclear analyst and engineer, says a key factor to watch in the coming weeks will be whether the North conducts more nuclear tests. In particular whether it matches them with further tests of long-range missile technology.

North Korea is not thought to have weaponised its nuclear devices to fit on missiles [AFP]
"If now we see a succession of tests, that will suggest that there's a development programme of the weapon itself towards the final production model - and trying to match the weapon to a delivery system," he told Al Jazeera.

"Put those two together and the threat from North Korea becomes very, very real."

For the time being though estimates on the size of North Korea's nuclear arsenal remain just that – estimates.

No outsider has ever seen a North Korean nuclear device and no photographs have been released.

As a result, few beyond the most senior North Korean officials have any idea what form North Korea's nuclear weapons are in or where they are kept.

Indeed, the issue of what to do with the weapons "stockpile" the North supposedly already has proved so complex and cloaked in secrecy that it was largely sidelined in the six-party disarmament talks.

With the Bush administration desperate to secure a foreign policy success in its final months, US negotiators repeatedly scaled back on what aspects of its weapons programme North Korea was expected to declare.

With Pyongyang now apparently having turned its back on the six-nation talks, the condition, location and usability of its alleged arsenal is even more confused and uncertain.

Warhead design

North Korea is a highly militarised and deeply paranoid society [EPA]
In addition while North Korea may not itself have mastered the processes of weaponising its nuclear devices, questions remain over whether it might have acquired that technology from elsewhere - perhaps using its own proven missile technology as a bargaining chip.

Western intelligence officials have focused attention on alleged co-operation between North Korea and Pakistan, with suggestions that Pakistani scientists may have offered assistance in warhead design in return for the North's missile know-how.

Then there is the question of how secure North Korea's alleged nuclear "stockpile" actually is.

That raises the possibility of what counter-proliferation experts call the "loose nukes" scenario – the prospect that a cash-strapped North Korea, or a North Korean official, might secretly sell one or more of its bombs to anyone willing to pay.

'Arms race'

Beyond that there is the broader perception factor - how North Korea's apparent determination to retain and expand its nuclear arsenal will be seen and interpreted by its neighbours.

John Large, the UK-based nuclear analyst, says North Korea's latest steps - particularly if it is followed by further nuclear tests - could trigger a regional nuclear arms race.

"The problem is that you have two powers in particular that are not yet nuclear powers but could very easily be – Japan and South Korea," he told Al Jazeera.

"And the historic antagonism between Japan and the Korean peninsula is well established."

With Japan already in possession of a sophisticated civilian nuclear programme, Large says the general consensus is that Japan, if it felt sufficiently threatened, could develop its own atomic weapons within a matter of months.

If Japan goes down the nuclear road others in the region would be under pressure to follow suit, raising the stakes once again for an already deeply paranoid North Korea.


North Korea has said it needs a nuclear deterrent to defend against US invasion [AFP]

Having isolated itself from the world for more than half a century, North Korea has become a master of secrecy and deception.

Unpredictability is its most powerful weapon.

For years it has been widely accepted that what North Korea craves is attention and recognition.

Most importantly, so the thinking goes, it craves recognition from and direct talks with the US.

But that is not all North Korea wants - it also wants to survive.

North Korea's leaders and its most senior military commanders have too much at stake to risk the collapse of the secretive, highly militarised, and deeply paranoid state over which they rule.

North Korea is a country built on illusion, lies, half truths and propaganda - reality comes a long way down the list.

But that does not mean it is not a danger.

The more belligerent it becomes, the more agreements it scraps, the more talks it walks away from, the less likely it is that the process of peaceful disarmament remains an option.

To date, only one country in history has actually given up a weapons programme that had successfully produced atomic weapons.

That country was South Africa, which ran a secret weapons development programme in the 1970s and 80s, the height of the apartheid era, producing six uranium-based weapons.

The programme was admitted to only in 1993, after the bombs had been disassembled and production facilities destroyed; and as South Africa - a relatively prosperous and stable country - made its transition to democratic rule.

For a country as diplomatically isolated and impoverished as North Korea, nuclear weapons are its sole trump card.

Source: Al Jazeera

North Korea's nervous neighbours

By Joe Havely - Al Jazeera


Some in Japan are calling for a new more pre-emptive military strategy [EPA]
After twice firing long-range rockets through Japan's airspace, the recent escalation in military posturing by North Korea has once again rattled Japanese nerves.

Japan and the Korean peninsula have a troubled history, particularly related to the brutal occupation of Korea by the Japanese imperial army in the run-up to and during the second world war.

Now North Korea's nuclear and missile tests have reignited a sensitive debate in Japan over strengthening the country's armed forces.

Japan is due to release new national defence guidelines later this year and some are calling for fundamental changes to the country's post-war pacifist constitution.

In particular questions are being asked about whether the military, which is barred from offensive action, should be allowed to carry out pre-emptive strikes against perceived imminent threats.

Some are even calling for Japan, the only country in history to have suffered nuclear attack, to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Given its advanced civilian nuclear energy programme it has been widely accepted that - should it take the decision to go nuclear - Japan could build a weapon within as little as six months.

Japan's military

Active personnel: 239,000

Annual budget: $43.5bn

Nuclear weapons: None, but thought to be capable of producing a bomb within timeframe of approximately six months. At the moment Japan has no so-called power projection weapons – systems such as aircraft carriers, long-range missiles or other weapons that allow it to project force well beyond its borders.

But calls are growing in some quarters for Japan's exclusively defence-oriented military posture to change.

One former Japanese defence chief has said the country needs to take a more proactive stance and should not be in a position to "sit and wait for death".

For many of Japan's regional neighbours the prospect of a militarily resurgent Japan, perhaps one armed with nuclear weapons, revives troubling memories of the country's wartime past.

South Korea

South Korea's military are on a constant state of alert over the threat from the North [EPA]. Since the end of the Korean war more than half a century ago, South Koreans have lived with the threat that the war with their northern neighbour could once again turn hot.

On near-constant alert against the North's 1.2 million-strong army, South Korea has an armed forces of about 687,000, backed up by around 28,000 US personnel stationed in the country.

While in terms of simple manpower the odds would appear to be stacked in North Korea's favour, analysts say there is little doubt the technologically superior South Korean and US forces would prevail in the event of conflict.

Nonetheless any war on the Korean peninsula would come at a terrible price.

Seoul, the South Korean capital, lies less than 60km from the heavily-fortified "demilitarised zone" that divides the two Koreas.

On the other side of the zone, hundreds of North Korean artillery and rocket batteries stand ready to make good on the North's threat to turn Seoul into "a sea of ashes".

South Korea's military

Active personnel: 687,000

Annual budget: $22.6bn

Nuclear weapons: None, but thought have technical capability to produce a bomb
For half a century most South Koreans have felt secure enough under the pledge of US security guaranties.

But with North Korea now rattling its nuclear sabre louder than ever, there is also the prospect that a jittery South Korea may be persuaded to develop its own nuclear arsenal – particularly if Japan also opts to go down the nuclear path.

In 2004 South Korea admitted that its scientists had produced a small amount of near-weapons grade uranium four years earlier, raising the prospect that it would not be that far of a technical leap for the South to develop its own bomb.

At the time the government said the material, amounting to less than a gram in weight, was produced by a group of rouge scientists operating without official approval.

But questions remain over the laser enrichment technique the scientists had apparently used – a technique so expensive that most experts say its only utility would be would be for military purposes.


China is finding that its influence over North Korea has waned [Reuters]
For years China has been North Korea's biggest supplier of aid and has been seen as the closest the reclusive country has to an ally.

It is North Korea's biggest trade partner by far, with Chinese loans accounting for much of the rest of North Korea's imports - effectively propping up the North Korean economy

China, which has its own nuclear arsenal, is believed to have had some role in training North Korean nuclear engineers, although its association with the North's weapons programme is extremely murky.

But recent developments have shown that even China has little real ability to keep a tight rein on its unpredictable neighbour.

For years China has advocated cautious diplomacy as the best way of dealing with North Korea.

China's military

Active personnel: 2,225,000

Annual budget: $58.3bn

Nuclear weapons: Yes, thought to have about 176 nuclear warheads and bombs
Beijing brokered the six-nation disarmament talks, and has revived them several times from the brink of collapse.

But with North Korea now having walked away from those talks vowing never to return, Chinese officials are becoming increasingly impatient with their troublesome ally.

China has traditionally been wary of any moves that could push the North Korean regime to collapse – a move that could potentially send millions of refugees streaming across its borders.

Now it has to balance that fear with the prospect of a regional arms race and a bellicose North Korea triggering Japan to rebuild its own armed forces.

Source: Al Jazeera

North Korea: A state of war

By Al Jazeera:

For more than 50 years, North Korea has been ready to go to war at a moment's notice.

Cut off from the outside world behind barricades of barbed wire, landmines and concrete tank-traps, the so-called "hermit kingdom" has come to rely for its very existence on maintaining a constant war footing.

Visiting North Korea as a tourist last year, it was impossible to avoid the message thrashed out again and again on the streets and on the airwaves that the country is under constant threat of invasion and outsiders are to be feared.

It is the message that is drilled into children from the day they are born, during the minimum six years of military service that every citizen must undertake, and in the workplaces and homes of every North Korean.

It is the message that also underpins the governing national philosophy of "juche" or self-reliance, encouraging North Koreans to shun the outside world and fuelling a national sense of paranoia that the country's rulers use to maintain their iron grip on power.

Culture of war

In the capital, Pyongyang, escalators more than 100 metres long lead down to the city's metro rail system built deep underground.

North Korea's "military first" policy has made it a deeply militarised society [Reuters]
Accompanied by eerie piped music, the stations have been designed to act as bomb shelters in the event of a US nuclear attack that North Korea's leaders insist is imminent.

On the outskirts of the city, the state film studios churn out a steady diet of epics intended to fuel the image of a country standing alone, defiant in the face of constant foreign threat.

Almost all the films are based around the evils perpetrated on the Korean people by outsiders - the Japanese during their occupation of the peninsula, and the US and their "puppets" in the South.

The result is that North Korea is a deeply militarised society.

Under what is known as the songun or "military first" policy, all the resources of the North Korean state are directed primarily at the armed forces.

According to outside estimates – there are no official figures - almost a third of North Korea's meagre GDP is spent on the military.

Meanwhile, aid agencies say, around a third of the country's population relies on food handouts to keep them from starvation.

Travelling by train though the North Korean countryside to the Chinese border, almost every other person we saw at the various stations along the way wore a military uniform.

'Forgotten war'

Like many things in North Korea, however, all is not what it initially seems.

Quick facts

Official name: Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Population: 22m (July 2009 est.)

Size: 120,540 sq km

GDP: $26.2bn (2008 est.)

Military: 1.2 million active-duty personnel, world's fourth-largest armed forces
A closer look at some of the "Kalashnikovs" carried by the soldiers for example revealed they were nothing more than wooden replicas.

North Korea may have one of the largest armies in the world, but, it seems, it cannot afford to give them all real guns.

In North Korea though - in a society that is taught not to question authority - reality is irrelevant and image is everything.

The 1950-53 Korean War has often been referred to in other parts of the world as the "forgotten war", perhaps because it achieved virtually nothing other than to flatten large parts of the peninsula and kill some 2 million civilians.

On the Korean peninsula and in North Korea in particular, however, it has left deep scars.

The conflict was one of the most brutal of the last century, and it continues to carry a painful legacy – a legacy seen most poignantly in form of the thousands of divided families on either side of the heavily-fortified border.

The brief tearful reunions of mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, torn apart by the division of the Korean peninsula show how deep the wounds left by the war continue to run.

But while those wounds are undoubtedly real, they are also a political tool in the hands of North Korea's leaders.

Through relentless propaganda and by enforcing a rigid isolation from the outside world, it is that tool that keeps them in power and their people on the brink of war.
Source: Al Jazeera

Obama writes to N Korea's Kim

By Al Jazeera:

Barack Obama has written a personal letter to Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, the US state department has said.

The US president's letter, which was hand carried to Pyongyang last week by a US envoy, is part of an effort by the US administration to draw North Korea back to six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

US officials have refused to reveal the details of the letter, but it reportedly outlined the benefits of returning to talks, while explaining the risks of continued isolation.

The letter was delivered to North Korean officials last week by Obama's special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, during a visit to Pyongyang.

Former US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton both also sent personal letters to Kim, raising the benefits of disarmament.

Bush wrote to Kim in December 2007, offering normalised relations if the North
Korean leader fully disclosed his nuclear programs by year's end.

The letter was seen as a turnabout for a president who had labelled the secretive regime part of an "axis of evil", along with Iran and pre-war Iraq.

According to the Washington Post, efforts early in Bush's term to send a letter were stymied by an intense debate over whether to use an honorific such as "his excellency" to address Kim.

Bosworth held talks with several senior North Korean officials but did not meet Kim himself.

Speaking to the Associated Press, an unnamed state department official said the contents of the letter followed the general message that Bosworth had taken to Pyongyang.

"The North Koreans have a choice: continued and further isolation or benefits for returning to the six-party talks and dismantling their nuclear weapons program," the official said.

Bosworth's talks were the Obama administration's first high-level contact with North Korea.

Speaking after the visit he said the two sides had reached a "common understanding" on the need to restart the nuclear negotiations.

The six party talks, aimed at denuclearising the Korean peninsular, involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, the US and Russia.

Castro condemns Honduras 'farce'

By Al Jazeera:

uba's president has accused the US of helping to legitimise what he called an "electoral farce" in Honduras.

Raul Castro made the comments on Sunday in Havana during the Alba summit of nine Latin American countries, defending what he said was the right of Manuel Zelaya, the former Honduran president, to be reinstated.

The Cuban leader said many of the region's governments had "condemned unequivocally" the military coup that ousted Zelaya in June.

"Sadly, we weren't able to count on the physical presence of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya," Castro said.

"The people of that Latin American nation have had their constitutional rights denied and a usurper government has been imposed with the support of the North American [US] administration, which they've attempted to legitimize with an electoral farce."

"If Raul Castro wants to lecture about democracy, he should start practising it as well"

US state department
Alba, which approved economic sanctions against the de facto Honduran government of Roberto Micheletti, called for international pressure to reject the November 29 Honduran elections won by president-elect Porfirio Lobo.

Zelaya, the ousted Honduran president, secretly slipped back into the country in September and has remained holed up at the heavily-fortified Brazilian embassy ever since.

On Friday he told reporters he would stay there until January 27, when his presidential term was to officially end.

Responding to Castro's comments, the US state department said in a statement to Al Jazeera that Cuba's leader was in no position to give lectures about democracy.

"Millions of Hondurans voted in the recent competitive election won by Porfirio Lobo," the statement said.

"When Raul Castro was named president, there was only one vote that counted - his brother's. If Raul Castro wants to lecture about democracy, he should start practising it as well."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

iPhone among decade's top 10 Internet moments

By China Daily:

The launch of Wikipedia, emergence of the iPhone and the election of US President Barack Obama were among the 10 most influential moments on the Internet in the past decade, according to the annual Webby awards.

Other events singled out by the New York-based International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, which has presented the annual Webby awards since 1996, were the Iranian election in 2009 when protests demonstrated the power of Twitter and other social networking websites.

"The Internet is the story of the decade because it was the catalyst for change in not just every aspect of our everyday lives, but in everything from commerce and communication to politics and pop culture," said David-Michel Davies, the executive director of The Webby Awards, in a statement.

"The recurring theme among all of the milestones on our list is the Internet's capacity to circumvent old systems and put more power into the hands of ordinary people."

Here is the Webby's list of the 10 most influential Internet moments of the decade:

Craigslist, the free classified ads site, expands outside San Francisco in 2000, impacting newspaper publishers everywhere.

Google AdWords launched in 2000 allowing advertisers to target their customers with laser-sharp precision.

Wikipedia, the free open-source encyclopedia, launches in 2001 and today boasts more than 14 million articles in 271 different languages,bringing strangers together on projects.

Napster shutdown in 2001, leading to other file-sharing floodgates.

Google's IPO in 2004 put the search engine on the path to powering countless aspects of our lives.

Online video revolution in 2006 that led to a boom in homemade and professional content on the Internet and helped reshape everything from pop culture to politics.

Facebook opens to non-college students and Twitter takes off in 2006.

The iPhone debuts in 2007 and smartphones go from a luxury item to a necessity with an app (application) for just about every aspect of modern life.

US presidential campaign in 2008 in which the Internet changed every facet of the way campaigns are run.

Iranian election protests in 2009 when Twitter proved vital in organizing demonstrations and as a protest tool.


(英语点津 Helen 编辑)

US billionaire indicted for fraud

By Al Jazeera:

Raj Rajaratnam, the Sri Lankan-born billionaire and founder of the Galleon hedge fund, has been indicted in a US court on charges of securities fraud and conspiracy.

Rajaratnam and Danielle Chiesi, a former consultant to hedge fund New Castle LLC and a co-defendant in the case, were formally charged in an Manhattan federal court on Tuesday.

The case, which prosecutes have described as the biggest-ever hedge fund insider trading case, involved employees of some of America's best-known companies.

Rajaratnam's lawyer said he was innocent and would fight the charges.

"Mr Rajaratnam is innocent and looks forward to his day in court when a jury of his fellow citizens will examine and evaluate all of the evidence," John Dowd said in a statement after the indictment was returned.

Rajaratnam, a US citizen, was freed on $100m bail, an amount he hopes to have reduced.

Traders investigated

Rajaratnam and Chiesi are the only indictments returned so far in the case, in which 20 people are facing criminal and civil charges.

Most of the accused have expertise in tech stocks.

The allegations included passing inside information on earnings announcements, takeovers and contracts on 10 companies, generating more than $30m in illegal profits, according to prosecutors.

Six traders or lawyers have pleaded guilty to charges in the investigation, which ensnared employees of IBM Corp, McKinsey & Co management and former lawyers of the Ropes & Gray law firm.

In the overall case, insider trading allegedly took place in shares of Google, Sun MicroSystems, Advanced Micro Devices, Polycom, Hilton Hotels, Intel, Clearwire, Akamai, Atheros and IBM among others.

Prosecutors say their investigation has identified about $40m in alleged illicit gains.

According to Forbes magazine, Rajaratnam is the world's 559th richest person with a net worth of $1.3bn.

His case has been followed closely in Sri Lanka, Rajaratnam's home country.