Adrian Olivier,

Sunday 31 December 2023 – Sunday 7 January 2024:

On Sunday, North Korea concluded its five-day long Workers’ Party meetings, which set the policy agenda for 2024, including the launching of three additional reconnaissance satellites. Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un told the meeting he would no longer seek reconciliation and reunification with South Korea, noting the “uncontrollable crisis” that he said was triggered by Seoul and Washington. Kim also ordered his military to “thoroughly annihilate” South Korea and the United States if they initiate a military confrontation. “If the enemy opts for military confrontation and provocation against the DPRK, our army should deal a deadly blow to thoroughly annihilate them by mobilising all the toughest means and potentialities without [a] moment’s hesitation,” Kim said. 

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin was hospitalised at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after complications from an “elective surgery”. Curiously, the Secretary’s hospitalisation was kept a secret from the public as well as senior defence officials such as Austin’s deputy Kathleen Hicks – the Pentagon’s No. 2 leader. Even President Biden was unaware of Austin’s status until three days into his stay there. Some Pentagon officials were apparently told on Tuesday, that the secretary would be on leave for the week, when in reality he was in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed. As of Sunday afternoon, Austin remained in the hospital “but is recovering well and in good spirits,” Pentagon press secretary Ryder said in a statement. “Since resuming his duties on Friday evening, the Secretary has received operational updates and has provided necessary guidance to his team,” Ryder said. Ryder said on Sunday that Secretary Austin has no plans to resign over what one un-named Pentagon official called a “cover-up”. It is unclear what will happen, but Austin appears to remain in President Biden’s favour. He spoke to Biden on Saturday evening, according to a White House official, who said the “president has complete confidence in Secretary Austin and is looking forward to him being back in the Pentagon.”

On Wednesday, a technological breakthrough was announced with the publication of a paper detailing the creation of the world’s first functional graphene semiconductor. Graphene is a single sheet of carbon atoms that is held together by the strongest chemical bonds known to man. It is an exceptionally strong material – 200 times stronger than steel – but it is also highly flexible. This makes it ideal for use in electrical devices, especially semiconductors. Semiconductors made from silicon are reaching their technological limits and graphene semiconductors may be the technology that replaces silicon in semiconductor design. The new graphene superconductors could accelerate the development of quantum computing technologies. The authors said the discovery could mark a major step toward the next generation of computing. “We don’t know where this will end but we know we’re opening the door for a major paradigm shift in electronics,” said lead author Walter de Heer of the Georgia Institute of Technology in the U.S. in a press release. “Graphene is the next step. Who knows what the next steps are after that, but there’s a good chance graphene could take over be the paradigm for the next 50 years.” Graphene semiconductors would use far less energy than current silicon conductors as they would produce less heat – which requires fans to keep the semiconductors cool. Over a decade, De Heer’s team figured out how to grow graphene on special silicon carbide chips, refining the materials to achieve the perfect structure. Finally, the graphene was able to act like a high-quality semiconductor that rivaled silicon. “The good thing about graphene is, not only can you make things smaller and faster and with less heat dissipation, you’re actually using properties of electrons that are not accessible in silicon. So this is really a paradigm shift — it’s a different way of doing electronics,” said de Heer. This could mean phones could last for weeks without running out of battery, resulting in significant reductions in energy consumption. 

On Thursday, The White House announced that U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia has acquired ballistic missiles from North Korea and is seeking close-range ballistic missiles from Iran. Recently declassified intelligence found that North Korea has provided Russia with ballistic missile launchers and several ballistic missiles, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. Russian forces fired at least one of those ballistic missiles into Ukraine on Dec. 30 and it landed in an open field in the Zaporizhzhia region, he said. Russia launched multiple North Korean ballistic missiles on Tuesday as part of an overnight attack, and the U.S. was assessing the impact, he said. The missiles have a range of about 550 miles (885 kilometers). U.S. intelligence officials believe that North Korea, in return for its arms support, wants Russia to provide it with aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, ballistic missile production equipment and other advanced technologies. Kirby said that a Russia-Iran deal had not been completed but that the U.S. “is concerned that Russia’s negotiations to acquire close-range ballistic missiles from Iran are actively advancing.”

On Friday, North Korea fired more than 200 artillery rounds towards Yeonpyeong island in South Korea. The island is located west of the Korean Peninsula, about 3km away from the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea and 12km from the North Korean coast – well within artillery range. It has been the scene of inter-Korean naval clashes over the years. In 2010 – two soldiers and two civilians were killed after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells towards the island. The island’s population is some 2,000 people, who were ordered to seek shelter. The artillery shells were fired between 09:00 to 11:00 local time and did not enter South Korean territory as they all landed in the buffer zone between the two countries. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the incident caused “no damage to our people or military”, but added that the act “threatens peace on the Korean peninsula and raises tensions”. South Korea ordered civilians to seek shelter on the island before holding live-fire drills of its own. The South called it a “provocative act”, but the North denied the islands were in danger from its firing drills.

On Saturday, India’s Aditya-L1 sun mission, launched in September 2023, reached solar orbit after a four-month journey. India’s science and technology minister Jitendra Singh said on social media that the probe had reached its final orbit “to discover the mysteries of Sun-Earth connection”. The spacecraft has positioned itself at Lagrange Point 1, from where it will undertake a comprehensive study of the sun, focusing on the solar corona and its influence on space weather. 

On Sunday, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong threatened an immediate military strike against South Korea in response to any “provocation”. This follows a third consecutive day of North Korean artillery drills targeting Yeonpyeong Island. In her statement on Sunday, Kim denied the artillery shell firings on Saturday and said the North had detonated explosives as a deception tactic.

In the week ahead:

On Monday, the United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket will blast off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket carries the first lunar lander to launch from the United States since NASA’s final Apollo mission in 1972.