North Korea: 64 years of aggression towards the West

Dominating the headlines yesterday was the latest missile launch by North Korea. It was the 17th launch this year, but what made this one particularly significant was the missile type. US authorities confirmed that the Hwasong-14 missile was an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), a long-range projectile designed to carry a nuclear warhead and the first of its kind to be successfully tested by North Korea. Although Tuesday’s test only flew 933km, its estimated maximum range is said to be 6,700km, which would allow it to reach the US mainland in Alaska. This marks a significant leap forward in the regime’s missile capabilities, a milestone celebrated by the state news agency, KCNA. It subsequently reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had described the test as a “gift” to America on its Independence Day. With tensions once again rising, here’s a brief history of how the North Korean regime has provoked the West through its development of long-range missiles.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North Korean regime has pursued a policy of provocation, in particular through the expansion of its military capabilities. The origins of the regime’s missile programme can be found in 1965, when Kim Il Sung ordered that his country should be able to produce its own missiles. These were to serve as both a deterrent and an offensive weapon in the event of another conflict with the US and its allies. However, real progress didn’t begin until 1976, when it reportedly received a shipment of Scud-B missiles from Egypt. These were developed by the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Pyongyang could build its own missiles. The Hwasong-5 was the first of North Korean origin; it was produced from 1984 and had a range of 1,000 km. This was followed in 1993 by the successful testing of the Nodong, its first intermediate-range ballistic missile. The development of these weapons put South Korea and much of Japan within range, making even the regime’s preliminary arsenal a significant threat. Pyongyang has also benefited from exporting its missiles to a range of countries including Libya, Iran and Syria. In one case a North Korean ship transporting missile parts, the So San, was stopped by US and Spanish ships in 2002 on its way to Yemen, but was ultimately allowed to reach its destination. Another important milestone was the moratorium agreed with the US during talks in 1999, in which North Korea arranged to halt long-range missile tests in exchange for a partial lifting of economic sanctions. This lasted, after several extensions, until the (failed) launch of the long-range Taepodong-2 in 2006.

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Kim Jong-un celebrates the successful launch of the Hwasong-14 ICMB.

Following the temporary halt in testing the regime stepped up its missile development, especially after Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011. In just six years he has sanctioned 83 tests, more than previous leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung combined. The regime has also started to time their launches to coincide with major political and cultural events for maximum effect. The number of launches increased dramatically in the period following the election of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, for example, as well as Tuesday’s test which coincided with Independence Day. The development of North Korea’s first ICBM is a major cause for concern for the West since it can be fitted with a nuclear warhead, though doubts exist as to whether it currently has the technology to do so. According to former CIA director Michael Hayden, it is believed that North Korea will have developed a nuclear missile capable of hitting the US mainland before the end of Trump’s term as President. Predictions such as these, alongside the success of Pyongyang’s most recent test, could lead to the US taking more serious action to deter Kim Jong-un from his increasingly aggressive missile policy.

Further Reading:

A CNN article examining North Korea’s 2017 missile launches

An NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative) report on the development of North’s Korea’s missile capabilities


The ‘Cuban Thaw’ at risk? A history of US-Cuba relations

At a speech in Miami on Friday, US President Donald Trump announced his plans to roll back policy changes made by his predecessor Barack Obama with regards to Cuba. Describing the current situation as a “completely one-sided deal”, he intends to reinstate certain travel and trade restrictions. However, several key aspects of Obama’s Cuba policy will remain, such as the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington. This latest turn in US-Cuba relations has encouraged me to look into the history of the two countries and whether the current situation will change under the Trump presidency.

First of all, the island of Cuba has not always been a communist state. American victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 led to the Treaty of Paris, in which Cuba became a US protectorate. American influence continued even after its formal independence in 1902, dominating Cuban politics and the economy. This continued until the 1950s, when the Cuban Revolution (1953-59) transformed the island forever. In 1959, the authoritarian Batista regime was overthrown by Fidel Castro and his communist forces. Cuba immediately became a direct threat to the USA, a communist stronghold only 103 miles from the US mainland. This led to rapidly deteriorating relations and a US policy which actively pursued a trade embargo with Cuba. The first embargo came in 1958, restricting the sale of arms to Cuba, and was followed in 1960 with an embargo on all exports except for food and medicine. In 1962 the embargo was further extended to nearly all imports and prohibited US companies from doing business with Cuba. The main reason given by the US administration for these restrictions is the refusal of the Cuban government to move towards democracy, as well as the abuse of human rights. Only once has el bloqueo (as it is known in Cuba) become a literal embargo; during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the American navy blocked all incoming ships from reaching Cuba in an attempt to persuade the Soviets to back down. Since the end of the crisis, the embargo has continued mostly along the same lines, making it the longest trade embargo in modern history.

The historic meeting between Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in March 2016. Obama was the first US President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

The first significant breakthrough in US-Cuba relations came as a result of the Obama administration. Known as the ‘Cuban Thaw’, since 2014 there has been a warming of relations after secret negotiations were held between the two countries. A normalisation agreement led to the lifting of some US travel restrictions and fewer limits on US access to the Cuban economy. Most importantly, the US and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington were reopened in July 2015, and Cuba was removed from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. This signalled the start of a closer relationship between the two countries, and in August last year US commercial flights arrived in Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, once more allowing many Americans to travel to Cuba. Unfortunately, this détente may not last long. Donald Trump’s announcement on Friday seeks to re-impose harsher embargo measures and tear down the successes of the Obama era. However, despite saying he would be “cancelling” Obama’s Cuba policy, he has left in place several of its most important successes. The US embassy will remain open in Havana, commercial flights will continue and US citizens will still be able to bring home a variety of Cuban goods. This suggests that although Trump’s actions will have some effect they are unlikely to signal a return to the embargo situation which prevailed until the thaw in 2014.

US-Cuba relations have come a long way since the open hostility of the 1960s, and it would be a tragedy to see this threatened by the Trump administration. If the benefits of the thaw continue to increase, such as the 600,000 US citizens who were able to visit Cuba last year, it will become more difficult for Trump to push through tougher measures.

Further Reading:

More information on the ‘Cuban Thaw’

Opinion piece on why the US embargo on Cuba has been ineffective

Explained: the French Parliamentary Elections

On Sunday, the French public once again went to the polls, this time to vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The initial results have put the political party of President Emmanuel Macron, La République en Marche, firmly in the lead, and it is expected to win up to 445 seats in the National Assembly. However, instead of writing in even more confusing terms I’m going to use this post to explain how France elects its politicians, and what the recent results mean for French politics.

First of all, I’d like to talk about the French political system (please bear with me!). Much like the House of Commons in the UK, the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) is the lower house of the government. It is here where laws are debated, amended and voted upon, making it an essential part of the law-making process. The Assembly has 577 seats which are filled by MPs (députés) who are chosen in the parliamentary elections. After the presidential elections (which are held roughly one month before), the President needs to gain a majority in the Assembly (289 seats) so that their party can pass laws. It is for this reason why the parliamentary elections are so important. As with voting in the presidential elections it is held over two rounds, with the first aiming to eliminate the candidates with the least support.  The two with the highest number of votes then proceed to the second round, and the candidate with the highest vote percentage is the winner. Elections are held in all 577 constituencies (circonscriptions) across France, including 27 in the overseas territories and 11 for French residents abroad. In the parliamentary elections this year a total of 7,882 candidates are standing; 42% of them are women, potentially a new record for female representation in the Assembly. They will be voted in by the 46.9 million people registered to vote, 716,000 of whom are first-time voters.

Following his election as President in May, Emmanuel Macron needs to get as many of his party members elected as possible to give him enough political power to carry out his agenda. His party, La République en Marche! (The Republic on the Move!) was only formed in April 2016 and as a result currently has no seats in the National Assembly. However, as mentioned his party is expected to win an historic 445 seats, giving them a significant majority. Many of the party’s candidates were selected in the weeks after Macron’s victory, with several having interesting backstories. Marie Sara is a retired bullfighter, for example, and Hervé Berville a Rwandan refugee. Although many of the party’s candidates lack political experience, this could in fact play to their advantage with an electorate fed up of mainstream politicians. The newness of La République en Marche! is seen as a clean break from the politics of the past, with Macron the figurehead of this new political movement.

These parliamentary elections will significantly transform French politics. If estimates are correct, the success of Macron’s party will be the biggest change to the National Assembly since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle brought in the Fifth Republic. The Socialists, who previously governed France under François Hollande, are set to lose up to 200 seats, a staggering loss for a party that has long been at the centre of the political system. On the other hand, the elections have highlighted a growing problem – turnout. In the first round it was 48.7%, compared to 57.2% in 2012. The reason for this has been suggested to be a lack of interest in the voting process, as well as a feeling of resignation among many of Macron’s rivals. His projected victory also puts the system itself into question. With an absolute majority in the Assembly many have warned that there would be no effective opposition to Macron, weakening the political process. This would be a step back for French democracy.

Voters go to the polls for the second round of the parliamentary elections next Sunday (18th), when we’ll know for sure just how successful Macron has been and what it means for la démocratie française.

Further Reading:

How do the elections work?

The winners and losers

End of an Era: Usain Bolt and the 100m Sprint

Usain Bolt has run one of the last 100m sprints of his career and the last in his home country of Jamaica. It was a race held in his honour, with Bolt easily winning in a time of 10.03 seconds. After the race, he performed a lap of honour in front of a packed stadium who had come to see him run, a testament to the support he has built up since he made his first appearance on the world stage in 2002. Bolt has become one of the most well-known athletes in sport and is widely considered to be the fastest sprinter of all time. His exploits are numerous; an eleven-time world champion and an eight-time Olympic gold medallist, Bolt has also held the world record for both the 100m and 200m sprint since 2009. He has received numerous awards, including winning the Laureus ‘World Sportsman of the Year’ award four times. This has undoubtedly made him a role model for all those aspiring to compete in athletics, and his contributions to the 100m in particular are numerous. After announcing his intention to retire at the World Championships in August this year, I thought it would be interesting to explore the history of the 100m and how Usain Bolt has changed the event forever.

The 100m sprint or dash has its origins in a sprinting competition held in ancient Greece, the “stadion”, in which participants had to run the length of an arena (approximately 200 yards or 180 meters). It was a major part of the ancient Olympic games, so much so that it was the only event from 776-724BC. The 100m sprint made its first formal appearance at the beginning of the modern Olympic games in 1896. Until 1928, however, it was an event reserved only for men. It was first won by Thomas Burke (USA) in 12.0 seconds, and from this point onward the race time has become ever faster. This has occurred both due to improvements in human fitness and health as well as changes to the format of the race. In the first 100m in 1896 the sprinters were separated by ropes and started races standing straight up, reducing their top speed. Since then many developments have taken place; synthetic tracks were introduced in 1956, and running clothes and shoes have become lighter and more streamlined. Starting blocks were also used from 1948, allowing runners to get an extra boost at the start of the race.

This has dramatically affected race times. In 1936 Jesse Owens (USA) clocked a time of 10.3 seconds in Berlin, and in 1968 Jim Hines (also USA) was the first sprinter to break the 10-second mark with a time of 9.95 seconds. This was also the year in which electronic timing was introduced to record the event, leading to much more accurate times. The current world record was set by Usain Bolt in 2009 at the World Championships final in Berlin. His time of 9.58 seconds shocked the athletic world and brought Bolt into the international spotlight. The women’s world record has decreased from 13.6 seconds in 1922 to 10.49 seconds, set by Florence Griffith Joyner (USA) in 1988. Throughout this period the 100m sprint has always been one of the highlights of any athletic competition, and as such breaking the world record is seen as a crowning achievement.

After 2009 Bolt failed to best his record-breaking run, yet it can be argued that he didn’t want to. After gaining international recognition he focused on his image as the world’s fastest sprinter. Besides, he was so far ahead of the competition that he could run an average race and still beat his competitors, safe in the knowledge that his record was out of their reach. Bolt’s departure in the summer leaves one question; who will replace him as the star of the 100m? Many have pointed to Trayvon Bromell, an American sprinter. Aged 21, he was the first junior to surpass the 10-second barrier with a time of 9.84 in 2015. He has since competed in the 2016 Olympic games, coming 8th in a competitive field. Amongst other stars, the future of the 100m looks promising.

However, it will be near impossible to match what Bolt has brought to the 100m. What defined his career was not only his records but how he has handled being the world’s fastest man. Most of all, his reign shows how far we have come in our pursuit to push boundaries and run faster than we ever have before. Usain Bolt is a shining example of what we can achieve if we put our minds to it, and I’m sure his last race in August will be an emotional one, not just for Bolt but for all of us who have eagerly watched him over the years.

Further Reading:

How the 100m record has evolved over time

History of sprinting at the Olympics


A History of the Great British General Election!

Today, people from across the UK are voting in the 2017 general election. What makes this election unique is the fact that it’s occurring only two years after the last one, a result of the snap election called in April by British Prime Minister Theresa May. 650 MPs will be elected to the House of Commons, with about 46.9 million people registered to vote. Recent elections are a world apart from those held when they first began, and today’s events have inspired me to explore the history of the general election and how it has changed over the years.

The first elections for the parliament of the United Kingdom were held on 22nd July 1802. Before this date, elections took place for two separate parliaments, those of Great Britain and Ireland. It’s worth noting several key aspects of the electoral process in the early 19th century; for example, universal suffrage was far from achieved, with women prohibited from voting. Men were restricted too, with only those owning a certain type of property being able to vote. The voting period was also much longer than the twenty-four hours we are accustomed to today, with the 1802 election lasting nearly two months! Parliamentary terms were longer too, allowing for up to seven years. Furthermore, the concept of a parliamentary majority was unheard of, allowing the Tory party to unfairly hold onto power until the system was reformed in 1832.

Of course, the general election process underwent numerous modifications after 1802. The Reform Act 1832 extended voting rights to 1 in 7 adult males. The Representation of the People Act 1884 was the culmination of this reform, increasing the electorate to 5.5 million men. 20th century reform brought about even greater changes, with the Parliament Act 1911 reducing the parliamentary term from seven years to the five years we know today. Following on from this, the Representation of the People Act 1918 granted suffrage to women, as well as increasing the number of men who could vote; all men over 21 and women over 30 could now have their say in general elections. Additional legislation in 1928 extended this right to the entire adult population over 21. The minimum voting age was lowered to 18 years of age in 1969 under the Labour party. The most recent major reform came in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, which ruled that general elections must be held every five years with no exceptions.

There are also several aspects of general elections which seem normal today yet weren’t always so. The proportion of the population who take part, known as the turnout, was only measured from 1918. This was also the year in which postal and proxy voting were first introduced, although it was intended only for members of the armed forces still serving overseas. Media coverage of the vote is today seen as a natural part of the political process, yet the BBC only aired its first television programme covering a general election in 1950.

I hope this article has provided a greater insight into the history of the general election in the UK. The numerous reforms show how lucky we are to have the ability to vote today, so I urge you to use your democratic right and have your say in all elections to come!