News in brief N°7

A summary of select international news: The entanglements of North Korean nuclear weaponry and the related long game for power by leading countries, the world’s agricultural industries increasingly concentrated and under the influence of a few businesses, national interest and embedded profits in the development of international communications standards.

Over 25% of the world’s agricultural seeds and pesticides will be under the control of just one private group if the planned merger of the Bayer and Monsanto corporations goes ahead. Bayer has offered to buy Monsanto for US$62.5 billion. That Bayer could plan to spend such a large amount of money on the purchase of another company speaks to the size and wealth of the group prior to its potential expansion. This single expense is equivalent to about 10% of the entire national budget expenditure for the country of Canada. It’s a greater expense than the entire public expenditure of Egypt, by about $8 billion; comparable to the Netherlands’ annual cost for healthcare provisions for its entire population ($66.6 billion equivalent); or about the same as the yearly expense on education for the countries of Austria, Finland, Greece, Ireland, and Slovakia combined. The finalisation of the merger deal is being held up by a European Commission antitrust review, during which the government body and Bayer are engaged in a series of negotiations prior to approval or rejection of the deal by the Commission. In 2016, Bayer, BASF, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta together accounted for a little over half of the world’s sales of seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers. Dow and DuPont have since merged, while Syngenta was purchased by ChemChina. A further merger would narrow this already thin lineup of very powerful businesses, which can exert a great degree of influence due to their wealth and control over an industry that is vital to human life. The European Commission regulatory review of Bayer’s plans are supposed to address some of these concerns. According to Reuters, the known results thus far are that Bayer has promised “to sell certain seed and herbicide assets” to BASF. “The company will also give BASF a license to its digital farming data, and it appears BASF will have exclusive access as Bayer has not offered a legal obligation to license to other rivals, a person with knowledge of the matter has told Reuters.” Note that BASF, like Bayer, is a German company, and it’s already in the elite club of those businesses that together hold a majority of sales in key agricultural products. BASF and Bayer have a history of common relations. They had previously combined with a few other large German chemicals manufacturers to form IG Farben. IG Farben is notorious for its participation with the Nazi government and with the part they played in the Holocaust. During the Second World War, the conglomerate was given the right to use concentration camp slave labour as chemical plant workers, and their subsidiary company developed the Zyklon B gas that was used to systematically murder millions of Jews, and other racialised or political prisoners in the now infamous gas chambers. Following Germany’s defeat, IG Farben’s remaining assets were divided between its constituent companies by occupying powers, reconstituting Bayer and BASF with no significant change in ownership and control at that time, despite these and other atrocities.

A US$117 acquisition of the technology company Qualcomm by Broadcom has been blocked by the US White House. The reason given was that of national security. The deal was still in the works prior to the government stepping in. The US federal government indicated concern that the takeover of Qualcomm could undermine that business’s research and development of the next generation of the international standard for mobile data networks used by smart phones and other mobile devices to connect to the internet. This network is called 5G, and it will supplant the existing 4G networks. Qualcomm is the leading US firm in the development of 5G standards. Broadcom was in 2015 bought up by Singapore-based company Avago, and the name of the purchaser was changed to Broadcom. The White House claims that any disadvantage or slowdown in 5G development would give a main corporate competitor an edge in the development of that standard. That competitor is Huawei, a Chinese company that has made strides in related standards development. Up to now, the US and its close allies have together established every existing generation of mobile data networks. The Chinese challenge could result in the first such international standard being developed outside the monopoly of Western influence. A main advantage and attraction of 5G is that it will have far faster connection speeds to the internet. Meanwhile, Intel has expressed its interest in buying Broadcom while Broadcom still seeks to buy Qualcomm. According to the Wall Street Journal, companies that have some stake in this competition “are pushing certain standards that rely on technology they have the right to patent. Similarly, hardware manufacturers support standards that would accommodate products they have been developing.” National security concerns have been given as excuse for various related restrictions in the past, such as the 2013 US claim that the technologies of Huawei and the ZTE telephone manufacturer may be used by China to spy on users. Similar accusations have been leveled against US technology companies, such as the 2013 revelation of US secret service document that boasted an agency programme by the name of Prism had direct access to user data from Apple, Facebook, Google, and others. Such services and infrastructure become a matter of national security as numerous technology giants are repeatedly accused of having relations and histories of cooperation with their respective national governments, their secret service agencies, or with that of their national allies.

On the matter of security and international relations: tensions, diplomatic maneuvers, and geopolitical activities continue to unfold in the Korean peninsula. On the surface the conflict is between the US and North Korea following the latter’s claims of having developed nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can strike parts of the US. This came after the US deployed parts of a missile defence system in South Korea, a move that was resisted by North Korea, China, and Russia. If the missile defence system is at all effective in its task, then the balance of nuclear forces is threatened by its deployment and the established status quo between the US, China, and Russia is thrown into question, an act that may well prompt the development of counterbalancing systems in order for all sides to be able to threaten the other with effective nuclear annihilation. This status quo is called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and is supposed to prevent all sides from launching major war or a nuclear attack for fear of their own liquidation as a response. Within the theories applied to MAD, if one side feels relatively assured that they could get away with launching a nuclear attack, then they may well be tempted to do so, or to start a conventional war with some degree of confidence that their enemies would not be able to deploy the threat of nuclear attack as a dissuading countermeasure. Therefore, the US defence shield placement in South Korea takes place in this context. This is to say that the issue between North Korea and the US is not isolated, but embedded within this wider theatre of military and political contest. Of course, the results of a full-scale nuclear war would not be isolated to participating parties but would threaten all life on the planet.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, made a four day state visit to China from 25 to 28 March, where he met with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Xi made mention of the timeliness of the meeting and had this to say regarding the “friendship” between his country and North Korea, “This is a strategic choice and the only right choice both sides have made based on history and reality, the international and regional structure and the general situation of China-DPRK ties. This should not and will not change because of any single event at a particular time.” This visit comes prior to a planned meeting between Kim and US president Donald Trump. No date has been publicly set for such a meeting and there’s no assurance that it will indeed take place. It remains a possibility and thus far a symbolic measure of some import. A related meeting has been announced between South and North Korean leaders for a 27 April summit. If this does go ahead, it will result in the first visit by a North Korean leader to the South since the end of the Korean War.

The Korean War was launched shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War (1945), and ran from 1950 to 1953. From 1910 until 1945, Korea was occupied and ruled by imperialist Japan. Korea was split into two during the Second World War, with the Soviet Union allied communist north on one side and the US allied capitalist south on the other. The North is now closest with China while the South continues to have very close political ties with the US. We should remember that South Korea does not have full sovereignty and is effectively a protectorate of the US to this day. In a time of war, command of the South’s military is to fall to the US. In such a situation, the country’s president is supposed to formally agree with this arrangement. If a country’s wartime command of the military is not in its own hands, it’s hard to imagine how plans, strategies, and preparations can be conducted without the leadership of those who would command it during the military’s wartime activity. At present, North Korea does not have a peace treaty with the South or with the US. Formally, the countries are still at war.

The military and diplomatic negotiations between North Korea and the US are related to these issues. North Korea seeks a peace treaty and a normalisation of relations between the warring countries that would end its decades long isolation. In return it’s dangling the promise of military denuclearisation. This is one aspect of the ongoing negotiations and machinations by all sides. The US legitimises the presence of very many of its troops in South Korea as a defensive measure against the possibility of mass violence between the South and North. There are currently some 24,000 US troops stationed there, with an additional 39,000 in Japan. This military presence puts pressure on China and Russia, both of which are within reach of the bases. If a peace treaty was signed with North Korea, the maintenance of bases in the South would be more complicated to explain and to legitimate. Though an unconfirmed estimation of the situation, it’s not such a stretch to imagine that China, Russia, and North Korea may well be playing a long game in order to pile pressure in favour of a peace treaty that could then lead to the next step of pressuring the US to pack up its bases.

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