Top of the Agenda: North Korea Sentences U.S. Citizen
North Korea on Thursday sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to fifteen years of hard labor (Reuters) for what it said were crimes against the state--a move that complicates already tense relations between Washington and Pyongyang and could lead to a diplomatic standoff. The forty-four-year-old Bae was born in South Korea but is a naturalized U.S.citizen, and had been part of a group of five tourists who visited the northeastern North Korean city of Rajin in November (AP). His sentencing comes after two months of nuclear war threats directed at the United States and South Korea by Pyongyang.
"With the end of the drills, analysts have said, North Korea might tone down its bellicosity and shift its focus toward drawing Washington back to the negotiating table — using, among other things, the plight of Mr. Bae as bait," writes Choe Sang-Hun for the New York Times.
"Acting as a private citizen, [former President Jimmy] Carter in 2010 flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of Aijalon Gomes, who'd been sentenced to eight years of hard labor after illegally entering the country. But Bae's sentence is slightly harsher than others issued to recent American detainees — all of whom were ultimately deported or granted amnesty," writes Chico Harlan for the Washington Post.
"Pyongyang has a track record of detaining U.S. citizens for alleged wrongdoing, handing down often-harsh court rulings against them, and eventually releasing them, sometimes after visits by high-profile American figures," writes Kwanwoo Jun for the Wall Street Journal.
Chinese Ambassador Warns U.S.
Cui Tiankai, China's new ambassador to the United States, warned Washington not to meddle in the territorial dispute (SCMP) over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands between Beijing and Tokyo. The statement marked the first direct remarks on the issue since his appointment last month.
SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA
Afghan Dies at Pakistan Border
An Afghan border policeman died after an exchange of fire along the border with Pakistan (WSJ), which had recently built a controversial outpost that has escalated tensions between the two neighbors. Hundreds of additional Afghan troops have been sent to the gate.
THAILAND: Thailand's national security chief said Thursday that talks aimed at ending violence in the restive south (Reuters) would continue despite an attack blamed on Muslim insurgents that killed six people.
Syrian Opposition Denounces Hezbollah
Syria's opposition denounced what it called "threats" from the head of Hezbollah (al-Jazeera), who had said earlier this week that the rebels would not defeat President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The Syrian National Coalition also warned against any intervention by the Lebanese group, or by Iran.
Hezbollah is not intimidated by U.S.policy when it comes to Syria, CFR's Elliott Abrams writes in this blog post.
IRAQ: The United Nations said on Thursday that April marked the deadliest month for Iraq in nearly five years, with more than 700 people killed in violence (AFP).
Chad Arrests Suspected Coup Plotters
Several people, including an opposition MP, have been arrested in the Chad capital of N'Djamena for what the government has described as an attempted coup (BBC). Since its 1960 independence from France, Chad has seen violence between the mainly Arab-Muslim north and mostly Christian south.
KENYA: The International Criminal Court has given clearance for Kenya's new president Uhuru Kenyatta to stand trial (IWPR), although they gave strong hints that the case could suffer further delays.
ECB Cuts Interest Rates
The European Central Bank lowered interest rates for the eurozone on Thursday to a new record low of 0.50 percent (Reuters). The move comes after ECB President Mario Draghi said in early April that he would be "ready to act" if Europe's economic outlook worsened. Unemployment has since risen.
CFR's Robert Kahn outlines what to expect from the ECB in this new blog post.
GREECE: Athens police used tear gas to stop the far-right group Golden Dawn (Kathimerini), now Greece's fifth-largest party, from handing out free food to only Greeks on the city's main square.
Obama Begins Latin America Trip
Obama leaves Thursday for Costa Rica and Mexico in a bid to deepen trade ties and discuss U.S. immigration reform, security threats, and drug wars. The three-day trip (MercoPress) will see Obama meet Mexican President Enrique Peņa Nieto and hold a summit with Central American leaders.
CUBA: The United States will keep Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism (MiamiHerald), U.S. government officials said Wednesday, despite the lobbying of opponents to remove Havana from the list.