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The World: Stories We’re Watching in 2011

BY Larisa Epatko  January 3, 2011 at 10:30 AM EST

South Korean protesters burn a North Korean flag. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

From rising tensions on the Korean peninsula to the potential birth of a nation in Africa, the following are stories the NewsHour’s foreign affairs team is tracking in the coming year.

North Korea: At the start of 2011, tensions on the Korean peninsula are at their highest point since the Korean War ended 60 years ago.

The United States and South Korea face the question of whether to take a tougher line with North Korea, or to try to engage Pyongyang and encourage the regime to give up its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. is lookingto China to lean more on its ally North Korea. China’s willingness to do that could emerge at the Jan. 19 summit between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The NewsHour is sending a team led by senior correspondent Margaret Warner to South Korea in January to report on the security and political situation.

Defense budget cuts: There’s a lot of pressure on the military to make some major cuts in its budget. Defense Secretary Gates already has asked the services to review their budgets in the hopes of saving $100 billion over the next five years.

In addition, the chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommended cutting defense spending by $856 billion between 2011 and 2020.

The real fights will be in Congress, facing conservative and Tea Party pressure to cut spending, but also worried about losing projects in home states and districts.

Afghanistan-Pakistan: For the Obama administration and its NATO allies, the struggle will be to turnthe “fragile and reversible” gains they believe they have made into some more enduring.

By July, the administration will face the deadline imposed by President Obama in his West Point speech to start bringing some U.S. troops home, however small the number, if nothing else to placate many in his own party who might start challenging appropriations for the war in Congress.

Also the administration will be under pressure, especially from the military, to shut down Taliban havens in Pakistan. The administration also faces the continuing challenge of dealing with a balky ally, the Karzai government in Kabul, that is coming under increasing criticism for corruption.

People in southern SudanSudan split? 2011 might see the birth of a new African nation when southern Sudanese vote on a secession referendum on Jan. 9. Southerners were promised this opportunity to choose to stay with the north or become their own country as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which ended two decades of fighting between the mostly Arab and Muslim north and the mainly Christian and animist south.

If the south votes to secede, as analysts expect, this would be the first new African country to emerge since Eritrea officially became independent from Ethiopia in 1993. After Sudan’s Jan. 9 referendum, if the south chooses independence, a six-month period will follow during which the north and south are to work out separation issues, such as distribution of oil wealth and responsibility for national debt.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: With U.S.-sponsored direct talks now abandoned, few diplomatic breakthroughs are anticipated. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken of interim agreements on some thorny issues and the government has stepped up the pace of settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority is under increasing pressure to make a unilateral declaration of statehood and then go to the United Nations for international recognition. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has said his plan would be to declare a state in mid-2011, with the goal of having it recognized at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Looking back on the Iraq war? By the end of 2011, the U.S. will withdraw allofits remaining 50,000 troops from Iraq, according to a Status of Forces Agreement Washington signed with Iraq in the last days of the Bush administration. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says he intends to make the U.S. stick to the plan — and U.S. officials also say publicly that they want to follow that timeline.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-MalikiFor a successful drawdown to be completed by the end of the year, analysts say it would have to begin in earnest by mid-summer. What would remain after year’s end and what kind of support in personnel and equipment will the U.S. provide Iraq to preserve internal stability and control potential terrorist elements?

For one, Iraq will be home to the largest U.S. embassy anywhere in the world. And the U.S. will still contribute much of Iraq’s sophisticated military equipment — merchandise that will require training to use. That means, in some capacity, U.S. forces will be there for some time to come.

Iranian nukes: Iran’s presumed pursuit of a nuclear weapon could well dominate the international agenda as the year progresses. The Obama administration has been hoping that sanctions and other pressures short of military action would pressure Iran to give up nuclear enrichment and other activities that could produce a weapon.

But in the United States, and Israel, doubts are growing that Iran will be so readily persuaded. And if they are not, how inevitable is a military strike that might delay the Iranian weapons program?

Terrorism: A spate of arrests in Europe, and increased warnings in the United States, could shift the focus on terrorism to home-grown and local franchise operations. European officials have long been worrying about disaffected and radicalized youth in their countries. The worry is spreading to the United States as signs of naturalized or immigrant American youth going to Pakistan and Yemen for training are on the rise.

Haiti presidential runoff: Haiti will have a runoff election for president on Jan. 16, a year after it suffered a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The country and its struggling government and aid agencies now confront a cholera outbreak, a limping reconstruction program and increased chaos.

The top candidates for president are law professor and former first lady Mirlande Manigat and the ruling party’s pick Jude Celestin. International donors will be looking for evidence that the billions of dollars pledged are going to produce some results.

Mexican soldier (AFP/Getty Images)Drug war in Mexico: The death toll in Mexico’s drug war has passed 30,000, and now the pressure is on President Felipe Calderon and the Mexican government either to show results or try a new course that could lead to some kind of tacit accommodation of the drug lords.

The United States will face new demands to curb its appetite for drugs and its supply of weapons to the gangs. The drug war is the major issue as Mexican politicians look ahead to presidential elections in 2012.

The euro in peril: The European Union nations will continue to struggle to save their common currency, the euro, amid rising debts and stagnant economies. Germany and France especially will feel pressure to come up with a more sweeping economic plan to replace the hasty patch-work solutions that have been offered so far in the Greek and Irish debt crises.

Royal nuptials: As Britain struggles with unemployment and a gloomy economic forecast, there will be some relief at the end of April when the heir to the throne once-removed, Prince William, takes a “commoner,” Catherine (Kate) Middleton as his wife.

With their skill at ceremony immersed in tradition, the Brits can be counted on to put on a good show at Westminster Abbey and the carriage rides back and forth to the palace. But in a symbol of austerity, the millionaire parents of the bride and the Windsor family will privately foot all costs except for security.

With contributions from foreign affairs and defense editor Michael D. Mosettig, deputy foreign affairs and defense editor Daniel Sagalyn, and reporter-producer Robert Zeliger.

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