| Backgrounder: The Six-Party Talks on North Korea's Nuclear Program

The Six-Party Talks are aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program through a negotiating process involving China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Since the talks began in August 2003, the negotiations have been bedeviled by diplomatic standoffs among individual Six-Party member states--particularly between the United States and North Korea. In April 2009, North Korea quit the talks and announced that it would reverse the ongoing disablement process called for under the Six-Party agreements and restart its Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Because Pyongyang appears intent on maintaining its nuclear program, some experts are pessimistic the talks can achieve anything beyond managing the North Korean threat. The Obama administration has been pursuing talks with the other four countries in the process to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiation table. Alongside the United Nations' effort to sanction North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, "this regional partnership between the United States and the countries of Northeast Asia remains the best vehicle ... for building stable relationships on and around the Korean peninsula," writes CFR's Sheila Smith.

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Co-authored by Jayshree Bajoria and Carin Zissis | Backgrounder: Terror Groups in India

India has long suffered violence from extremist attacks based on separatist and secessionist movements, as well as ideological disagreements. In particular, the territorial dispute over India-controlled Kashmir is believed to have fueled large-scale terrorist attacks, such as the bombings of a Mumbai commuter railway in July 2006 as well as a deadly explosion on an India-Pakistan train line in February 2007. Kashmir-related terrorist violence draws international concerns about its possible link in a chain of transnational Islamist militarism. The terrorist assault on Mumbai's hotel district on November 26, claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahadeen, appears to confirm a disturbing new turn of events domestically. Recently, a group calling itself the Indian mujahadeen joined the roster of terror forces, claiming responsibility for a series of blasts in November 2007 in the state of Uttar Pradesh and 2008 attacks in the Indian cities of New Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad. Their relationship with the new Deccan Mujahadeen group remains unclear. India also faces another extremist threat: A Maoist insurgency by violent revolutionaries called "Naxalites" has emerged across a broad swathe of central India - nicknamed the "red corridor" - to claim a growing number of lives.

Read the full text. | Backgrounder: The Role of the UN Secretary-General

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan left a mixed legacy after two terms as the organization's chief executive, ending in 2006. Annan garnered a Nobel Prize for encouraging global cooperation on peace, launched unprecedented investigations into UN peacekeeping and security, and set about reforming bodies like the UN Human Rights Commission. Yet his critics also saw a failure in Annan's inability to do more to end abuses in Sudan's Darfur region, his handling of relations with the United States, and his management of the UN's Oil-for-Food program in Iraq. Annan's replacement, Ban Ki-moon, has made climate change and AIDS themes of his term. The differences between Annan's and Ban's leadership styles in many ways point to the ambiguous nature of the secretary-general position itself—a role bifurcated, often unevenly, between the tasks of "secretary" and "general."

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Co-authored by Carin Zissis and Lauren Vriens | Backgrounder: The Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand

Over the past four years, an insurgency in Thailand's southern, predominantly Muslim provinces has claimed nearly three thousand lives. The separatist violence in these majority Malay Muslim provinces has a history traceable back for more than half a century. Some experts say brutal counterinsurgency tactics by successive governments in Bangkok have worsened the situation. Political turmoil in Bangkok and tussle between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the country's military have further contributed to the instability, working to stymie any serious initiatives for a long-term solution to the crisis.

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Co-authored by Jayshree Bajoria and Carin Zissis / - Backgrounder: China’s Environmental Crisis

China's heady economic growth continued to blossom in 2007, with the country's gross domestic product (GDP) hitting 11.4 percent. This booming economy, however, has come alongside an environmental crisis. Sixteen of the world's twenty most polluted cities are in China. To many, Beijing's pledge to host a "Green Olympics" in the summer of 2008 signaled the country's willingness to address its environmental problems. Experts say the Chinese government has made serious efforts to clean up and achieved many of the bid commitments. However, an environmentally sustainable growth rate remains a serious challenge for the country.

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Co-authored by Jayshree Bajoria and Carin Zissis | Backgrounder: The U.S.-South Korea Alliance

The longstanding U.S.-South Korea alliance, originally established during the early years of the Cold War as a bulwark against the communist expansion in Asia, has undergone a series of transformations in recent years. Since 1998, when political power passed for the first time from the dictatorial ruling party to the political opposition, the United Democratic Party, successive UDP governments have steered a more independent course from Washington, sometimes leading to friction. During the tenure of President George W. Bush, the once solid alliance went through a difficult period. Among the many issues that bedeviled ties was disagreement over how to handle Pyongyang’s erratic behavior, a generational divide in South Korea on the alliance and the U.S. military presence that underpins it, an ascendant China, and disagreements during bilateral trade negotiations. In 2007, the countries signed a bilateral free trade accord and agreed to a rearrangement of the military command structure that gives Seoul a greater say in its own defense. They also narrowed their differences on North Korea policy. In 2007, a conservative, Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party, won South Korea’s presidency, and his party followed up with victories in 2008 parliamentary elections, ending two decades of UDP dominance. Lee strongly supports the U.S. free trade agreement and takes a harder line on North Korea unlike his two predecessors.

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Co-authored by Carin Zissis and Youkyung Lee | Backgrounder: Media Censorship in China

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing have drawn international attention to censorship in China. Watchdog groups say the preexisting monitoring system piles on new restrictions, and the government continues to detain and harass journalists. But the country’s burgeoning economy allows greater diversity in China’s media coverage, and experts say the growing Chinese demand for information is testing a regime that is trying to use media controls in its bid to maintain power.

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Co-authored by Carin Zissis and Preeti Bhattacharji | Pakistan’s Broken Border

The frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan serves as the flash point for tensions between the two countries as Kabul grows increasingly critical of Islamabad's seeming inability to control cross-border raids by Islamic militants. The solution proposed by Pakistan last month to mine and fence the roughly 1,500-mile Durand line (VOA) did little to reassure Afghans, who have long disputed the boundary. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose criticism was echoed by Washington and the United Nations, said Islamabad should instead eliminate terrorist sanctuaries (BBC) within Pakistan rather than separate families who live in the border region. Pashtun tribal leaders on both sides of the boundary warn if Pakistan carries out the plan they will remove any barriers or mines (Pajhwok Afghan News).

Read the full text. | India's Energy Crunch

India’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth hit 9.2 percent for the period from July through September of this year—an increase over the already robust rate of 8.4 percent during the same period last year. But along with an ascendant economy comes a mounting hunger for energy, and New Delhi fears it cannot sustain growth in the long term without continually boosting the country’s energy supply. India’s per capita energy consumption rates remain low in comparison to those of countries like the United States and China. But India, the world’s fifth biggest energy consumer, is projected to surpass Japan and Russia to take third place by 2030. Doing so will test India’s ability to create a domestic policy for its semi-privatized energy sector, as well as its capacity to develop relationships with foreign energy exporters.

Read the full text. | Pying-Pyong Diplomacy

The Bush administration’s policy of no direct talks with Pyongyang is no more. Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. envoy in North Korean denuclearization talks, made a surprise visit (KTimes) to the isolated country Thursday. With this trip, Hill aimed to breathe life into a February denuclearization deal that gave Pyongyang sixty days to shut down its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and allow inspectors to return to the country. In exchange, Pyongyang would receive desperately needed food and energy supplies from members of the Six-Party Talks. But the April deadline came and went with Pyongyang refusing to hold up its part of the bargain until it received $25 million in funds, which the United States says were connected to North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering, frozen in a Macao bank. After meetings in Pyongyang, Hill said North Korean officials were prepared to move past the funds issue and shut down Yongbyon (BBC).

Read the full text. | Backgrounder: India's Muslim Population

Although home to a Hindu majority, India has a Muslim population of some 150 million, making it the state with the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. While many Indian Muslims achieve celebrity status and high-profile positions abroad and in India’s government—the current president is Muslim—India’s booming economy has left the nation’s largest minority group lagging behind. Muslims experience low literacy and high poverty rates, and Hindu-Muslim violence has claimed a disproportionate number of Muslim lives. Yet Muslims can impact elections, using their power as a voting bloc to gain concessions from the candidates who court them.

Read the full text. | China's Slow Road to Democracy

In a February 2007 article, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao predicted China would continue in the “primary stage” of socialism for the next hundred years—considered by many a signal of Communist Party thinking about the slow-motion development of democracy. At the same time, a rise in social protests and nongovernmental organizations demonstrates Chinese popular demand for a more open society. But thanks to a burgeoning economy and clampdowns on press freedoms and dissent, experts say the central government in Beijing has an increasingly firm grip on power.

Read the full article at | Musharraf Tightens Media Grip

Three Pakistani journalists (Reuters) recently left a press meeting in Karachi to find a dark message on their cars: an unaddressed envelope containing a single bullet. A week earlier two of the three journalists, who work for foreign media outlets, were included in a list of a dozen reporters considered “enemies” by a shady group called the Mohajir Rabita Council, which has links to the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement allied with President Pervez Musharraf’s political coalition.

Read the full text. | Park: Private Sector Solution Could Resolve North Korean ‘Radioactive Funds’ Issue

John S. Park, head of the Korea working group at the United States Institute of Peace, discusses the controversy over $25 million in North Korean funds holding up a February 2007 denuclearization deal. Although the U.S. State Department pledged to release the money from Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao, banks around the world consider the funds tainted by a U.S. Treasury Department ruling that connects the $25 million with illicit activities.

“The $25 million is the financial equivalent of radioactive funds,” explains Park, who says the time has come “to start thinking out of the box of having governments approach third party banks.” He suggests a private sector solution to the current stalemate and that Asia’s experience with troubled banks during the 1997 financial crisis provides a model for resolving the issue. Monetary authorities in Macao could declare BDA a distressed bank and put it up for sale, explains Park. He says the BDA banking license in a recapitalized format could result in a “lucrative sale” in which the proceeds “can be used for the clean transfer of $25 million to a bank designated by North Korea.”

Access the podcast at | Timeline: Venezuela's Chavez Era

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999 on a populist platform. But as he moves to enact his “socialist revolution,” critics say the country increasingly resembles an authoritarian state. This interactive timeline offers a visual account of modern Venezuelan politics and Chavez’s rise to power.

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Access the interactive. | China Policy: Protectionism in the Wind

The United States reached minor economic agreements with Beijing during talks in Washington this week, yet failed to secure a deal (AP) for significant Chinese currency reform. Delegates from the two countries met for the biannual Strategic Economic Dialogue, which serves as chance for discussion between two of the world’s largest economies. Although envoys reached pacts on energy, the environment, and opening Chinese markets to U.S. financial institutions, the currency issue could trouble U.S.-China economic relations. In advance of the talks, a bipartisan group of forty-two lawmakers urged the Bush administration to investigate whether Beijing manipulates the value of the yuan, keeping it priced low against the dollar to boost Chinese exports. They charge this practice exacerbates (Reuters) the U.S. trade deficit, which hit a record high of roughly $233 billion last year.

Read the full text. | Supreme Problems in Pakistan

Multiple assassination attempts have failed to remove President Pervez Musharraf from power, yet unrest caused by his suspension of the Supreme Court’s chief justice threatens his authority. Protesters say that Iftikhar Chaudhry, handpicked by Musharraf, was removed over concern he would question the president’s hold on the army chief post in fall 2007 presidential elections. The chief justice has refused to go quietly. Highlighting tensions, a court official was murdered in his home (Australian) hours before a pivotal Supreme Court hearing on the matter. A BBC backgrounder examines the judicial crisis.

Read the full text. | Abbas: Musharraf’s Sinking Credibility

Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University and author of Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism, served as an official in the administrations of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He discusses escalating violence over Musharraf’s decision to suspend Pakistan’s Supreme Court chief justice and says it signifies “the beginning of the end” for the president, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Abbas says deadly clashes over the judicial crisis could not have occurred “without instruction from the top,” and that the government wished to show it would not tolerate dissent. The possibility of an agreement between Musharraf and the exiled Bhutto appears increasingly remote given the Supreme Court controversy, says Abbas.

Access the podcast at | The Philippines’ Flawed Elections

Violence and political unrest that simmered in the months leading up to Filipino legislative elections continued unabated as six voters were killed (AFP) heading to the polls on May 14. In a macabre display of might by armed militias, more than one hundred people—over half of them candidates—have died in election-related violence (RTE) since January. 

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