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Morning Brief

South Korean Minister Resigns Amid Worsening Ties With North

South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul resigned on Friday after failing to mend ties between North and South in latest spat.

South Korea's then Unification Minister Kim Yeon-Chul speaks during a briefing at the Seoul Foreign Correspondent's club in Seoul on June 4, 2019.
South Korea's then Unification Minister Kim Yeon-Chul speaks during a briefing at the Seoul Foreign Correspondent's club in Seoul on June 4, 2019. Ed Jones / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: South Korea’s unification minister resigns over worsening ties with North, China releases Indian soldiers after mountain brawl, and Australia says it is under cyberattack from a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor.”

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S. Korea’s Unification Minister Becomes First Casualty of North’s Renewed Pressure

South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul became the first political casualty of renewed tensions on the Korean peninsula when he stepped down from his position early this morning. Kim had offered to resign on Wednesday as ties between the two countries worsened and today it was accepted by President Moon Jae-in.

The new spat began over the issue of South Korean defector groups dropping leaflets across the North Korean border. Pyongyang has attempted to show its zero tolerance approach to such activity by threatening to re-garrison abandoned guard posts near the demilitarized zone. On Tuesday, North Korea produced a visual display of its displeasure by blowing up a four-story building used as an inter-Korean liaison office.

A waning Moon? The crisis has damaged President Moon Jae-in, fresh from his party’s landslide victory in parliamentary elections amid global plaudits for his handling of South Korea’s coronavirus epidemic. A Gallup Korea poll released today showed Moon’s approval rating at 55 percent, its lowest level in almost three months.

Has South Korea made the right moves? As North Korea signaled its disapproval in increasingly aggressive statements, Moon’s government attempted to defuse the issue by banning defector organizations. Such actions have not stopped North Korea’s threats.

Writing in Foreign Policy on June 16, Doug Bandow argued that South Korea’s approach requires a rethink, as the current posture “sacrifices citizens’ basic rights and encourages North Korea to make additional demands.” By banning defector organizations “Seoul abandoned its leverage,” he wrote. “The North fears propaganda directed at its citizens. Instead of shutting down such activities, the South should encourage them.”

What We’re Following Today

Brazilian minister steps down. Brazilian Education Minister Abraham Weintraub­—considered a loyal ally of President Jair Bolsonaro—resigned on Thursday following Weintraub’s appearance at a Sunday rally protesting against the country’s Supreme Court. Bolsonaro had issued a public scolding to Weintraub after he spoke at the rally, fueling speculation about his position and suggesting a more conciliatory approach from the president toward the court. Weintraub’s exit is one of many cabinet positions vacated in the past few months after the resignation of Justice Minister Sergio Moro as well as the departure of two health ministers.

China releases Indian soldiers after mountain brawl. Ten Indian soldiers have been released from Chinese custody after being captured during Monday’s deadly clash in the Galwan valley on the India-China border, an Indian newspaper has reported. Although Indian authorities had said that 20 of its forces had died in the fighting, they had not confirmed that any of their soldiers were missing. Both India and China will join Russia for trilateral talks next week in the latest attempt at cooling tensions.

France and Turkey spar over ship incident. Tensions between France and Turkey continued to rise after French Defense Minister Florence Parly said a Turkish ship refused to identify itself and its mission after an approach by a French vessel on a NATO mission to check on suspected weapons smuggling to Libya.

Turkish sailors donned bulletproof vests and took up positions behind light weaponry during the incident, according to Parly. “This act was extremely aggressive and cannot be one of an ally facing another ally who is doing its work under NATO command,” Parly said. Turkey called France’s claims “baseless.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that NATO is investigating the incident “to bring full clarity into what happened.”

Belarus protests. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Belarus after authorities detained Viktor Babariko, one of the main challengers to President Alexander Lukashenko in the country’s upcoming election. Babariko is accused of taking $430 million out of Belarus in a money-laundering operation. His campaign called the accusations an “absurdity” as well as a “violation of human rights” and promised to still field him in the August election.

As Vitali Shkliarov wrote in Foreign Policy on June 4, the coronavirus pandemic has given Belarusians a rare chance to voice dissent. “The ability of Belarusians to wear masks and gather in public, which was previously banned because the government didn’t want protesters to hide their faces, has given them the ability to be anonymous and engage in political discourse never before available to them without fear of reprisal for the first time ever,” Shkliarov wrote.

Keep an Eye On

China charges Canadians with espionage. Chinese prosecutors announced today that they have charged two Canadians in Chinese detention with espionage. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been held by Chinese authorities since 2018 in what is seen as a reciprocal move by Beijing after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, by Canadian police. Meng is currently under house arrest in Vancouver while fighting a Canadian court battle to halt her extradition to the United States.

Australia under cyberattack. A number of Australian political organizations and companies are being targeted by a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor,” according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Morrison did not name the country responsible but said the activity had been taking place “over many months.” Morrison said his government had raised the alarm in order to alert essential services in health and other sectors to “implement technical defences to thwart this malicious cyber activity.”

World refugee numbers rise. A new report by the United Nations refugee agency found that the number of refugees worldwide increased by 9 million in 2019, adding to a total of roughly 80 million people. Only 107,000 refugees were resettled in third countries, with Canada receiving the most with 31,100. The United States received the second highest number with 27,500 resettled in 2019.

Odds and Ends

A radical Russian cleric has occupied a convent near Yekaterinburg and media organizations report that armed guards are now protecting the premises. The priest, Father Sergii Romanov, had been banned from preaching by the Orthodox church in April after he gave sermons claiming the coronavirus did not exist and encouraged worshippers to ignore social distancing guidelines in order to gather for Easter celebrations. The Yekaterinburg diocese said that the convent’s superior has left the convent along with four other nuns. Police have entered the convent since Romanov took his stand but have not yet reported any violations according to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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