Alert: Police officers in Downing Street after Home Secretary Theresa May raised the UK's terror threat level to 'severe', 29 August. Photo: Getty
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David Cameron to announce new plan to tackle Islamic extremist threat

The Prime Minister will make a statement in the Commons later today as parliament returns after recess and the coalition continues this morning negotiating how to widen anti-terror laws.

Following the news last week that the government has raised the terror threat level to “extreme”, David Cameron is expected to set out in the Commons how the government plans to widen anti-terror legislation, as parliament returns after recess today.

As conflict in Iraq and Syria builds, there is a mounting concern in the UK about those British nationals who are travelling overseas to join the jihadists, who may then return and pose a direct terror threat to the UK. Cameron is to speak specifically about how best to deal with British national jihadists either travelling to or returning from these zones. He promises to close what he sees as “gaps in our armoury” when it comes to anti-terror laws.

However, it won’t be that simple for Cameron. Although a matter that is clearly of highest priority to the government – whether it’s a “knee-jerk reaction”, as Paddy Ashdown and others have called it, just to look like it’s doing something, or a genuinely necessary response to a very real threat – it has become a subject of coalition contention.

The Lib Dems have clashed with the Tories over the latter’s wishes for expanding existing anti-terror legislation. It is reported that the Conservatives in government want to introduce new measures to seize passports, and also impose temporary bans on fighters travelling back from foreign conflicts. Under these new proposals, if a Briton was thought to have been involved in terrorism abroad, they could be prevented from returning to the UK for some time, although allowed to retain British citizenship, according to the BBC.

However, the Lib Dems – including high-profile figures who have been heavily involved in foreign policy in the past, such as former leader Paddy Ashdown, and current MP and former leader Ming Campbell – are concerned about the legality of these measures. Nick Clegg has been locked in talks with Cameron over the weekend, regarding the government’s response to the terror threat unfolding in light of intensifying terror acts by Islamic State (formerly known as Isis).

Also, UN conventions on statelessness mean that the government could be breaking international law with such measures as stripping people's passports, and denying them access to Britain. Tory MP and barrister Edward Garnier warned the Today programme this morning that, "parliament can pass any law it likes, but the government is already bound by two UN conventions on statelessness."

Clegg and the Lib Dems are concerned about the encroachment on civil liberties of the Tories’ proposals, and also warn about the potential illegality of rendering citizens stateless, even if done so temporarily. The Lib Dems have been accused of putting a brake on the government’s action against terrorism, although Tory Defence Secretary Michael Fallon denied this, and the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and Labour MP Hazel Blears called on the Deputy Prime Minister to “get off this kind of high horse that he’s on” and drop his opposition to the controversial control orders.

Indeed, Labour, at odds with the caution of the Lib Dems, has been calling for the return of powers allowing authorities to put jihadists under close surveillance and enabling them to force jihadists to move away from their homes if necessary, placing restrictions on their movements.

The Prime Minister will address the Commons later today, laying out the government’s plans, but his talks with the Lib Dems are likely to continue this morning, revealing the last-minute nature of the agreement over new anti-terror measures, and also hinting that the new plan will be watered down from that which the Tories were initially hoping for.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear