North Korea flare-up, Syria red line, and the pursuit of peace in South Sudan: The cheat sheet

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors reveals what’s on our humanitarian radar and curates a selection of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

Tensions rise fast on the Korean peninsula

The administration of US President Donald Trump has been talking tough on North Korea almost from the day he took office. On Thursday, Trump told Reuters there is a possibility of “major, major conflict”. And it’s not just talk: The United States has been conducting military manoeuvres with North Korea’s arch-enemy and neighbour, South Korea, which included testing of new weapons. It has also sent a naval strike group led by an aircraft carrier to the Sea of Japan, and a submarine armed with cruise missiles to the South Korean city of Busan. The show of force is intended to convince North Korea to refrain from carrying out further nuclear tests, but Pyongyang has, so far, remained defiant. North Korea’s state news agency warned this week that US pressure is "a risky act little short of lighting the fuse of a total war". Such hot rhetoric is unlikely to cool down any time soon. As IRIN reported recently, North Korea holds a series of nationalist holidays from April to September that are almost always accompanied by bellicose statements.

South Sudan – not a good time to talk peace?

The situation in South Sudan only gets grimmer. In the northwest, a government offensive has in the last few days displaced close to 25,000 people around the town of Kodok. The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, is reporting that people are fleeing to Aburoc, where the total number in need could rise to 50,000. But aid organisations have been forced to suspend their work because of the fighting between the army and Agwelek Shilluk militia, allied to the opposition SPLA-IO. There are few safe options for the displaced. Many will have little alternative but to head to camps in Sudan. “Those who decide to go face an arduous journey on foot, lasting many days” with little food and water, warns MSF.

Talks to end the violence seem a must, but the opposition is deeply fragmented. There are “third, fourth and fifth groups that have little affinity” for SPLA-IO, notes analyst Aly Verjee. The command structure of the SPLA may even have broken down, adding to the confusion. How can progress begin on a ceasefire when the conflict is now so local? President Salva Kiir (perhaps disingenuously) has called for talks. But the international community and regional government seem paralysed to help push the process along, says the International Crisis Group. Work needs to be done to create the conditions for local dialogue or Kiir’s offer will be a hollow one.

Keep your eyes peeled for IRIN's upcoming in-depth report on the devastating impact of the war in the Equatoria region.

Adapting the UN for the networked age

“If the UN did not exist, we would need to invent it. But now we need to reinvent it.” So writes Tom Fletcher, former British Ambassador to Lebanon and the author of a draft report that examines whether technology can save the UN from its slow slide into irrelevance and bring it into the 21st century. Fletcher is optimistic it can, but believes it will take a shift in culture and mindset as much as the adopting of new technologies and new ways of working. This 60-page report offers 20 recommendations to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: from appointing a Deputy Secretary General for the Future, to creating a Geneva Convention for Cyber Security, to providing online access to UN spending figures. Fletcher aims to stimulate debate and generate more suggestions, the best of which will be compiled into a final report that will go to Guterres in September.

EVENT: Anti-terror laws and aid delivery

Humanitarian agencies have for years had to navigate strict anti-terrorism legislation when delivering aid in hot zones such as Somalia, Mali, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Gaza. As IRIN wrote back in 2011, such laws and regulations, predominantly those adopted in the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, tend to “add to [agencies’] costs, slow down their transactions, and sow distrust between them and their local partners”. The restrictions have, in particular, long affected Somalia, where much of the country, including some of the areas worst-hit by drought and severe food insecurity, are under the control of al-Shabab. Even now, as Somalia teeters on the brink of famine, US and UK laws are having a “chilling effect” on aid delivery, according to a recent report in the Guardian. One problem facing aid workers is the sheer complexity of the relevant legislation. Jessica Burniske and Naz Modirzadeh, both of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, will unpick the key issues on May 12 in an online presentation of their recent pilot study on the subject.

OPENING: Migration Museum in London

Immigration continues to dominate the political agenda in Britain. It was the subtext to last year’s EU referendum and is bound to be a talking point for politicians again in the run-up to the snap general election Prime Minister Theresa May has called for June. And yet, there’s widespread misunderstanding and misinformation about the levels of immigration to the UK and the role of migrants in British society, not just today but across the ages. A visit to the new Migration Museum, which opened in London this week, gives an insight into the degree to which migration has shaped the country. Exhibits like “Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond” are also an attempt to focus on individuals rather than the faceless hordes of migrants said to be massing in places like Libya and Calais. The museum provides a permanent venue for the Migration Museum Project, which has been staging exhibitions and educational workshops since 2013.

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Syria: Return of the red line

With much of the media focus suddenly on North Korea and the over-simplified and perhaps overblown scenario that Kim Jong-un and Trump are unpredictable actors locked in a dangerous game of nuclear brinksmanship, it would be easy to forget that the United States recently launched its first direct military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key Russian ally. After years of signalling he was ok with al-Assad remaining in power, the chemical weapons attack on Idlib seems to have prompted a Trump rethink. But has it actually changed US policy towards Syria, and if there is a new “red line” where exactly has it been drawn? Such vital questions underpin this sobering analysis by Syria specialist Aron Lund, who deftly sifts out the real change from the ramped-up rhetoric. When the bombast over North Korea finally dies down, it is in Syria that Trump’s mettle is most likely to be tested. He has already complained that being president is harder than his old life. It’s only going to get tougher from here.

(TOP PHOTO: Mundari cattle herders on the road in Terekeka in South Sudan’s Equatoria region. Alice Su/IRIN)

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