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Forecast: North Korea tensions flare, China reopens its borders, and France presents pension reform bill

Pope Benedict greets a baby held by another man. There are guards in suits around them.

Welcome to Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories from the editors at Factal.

We publish our forward-looking note each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead.

North Korea tensions are rising once again after the reclusive regime launched several drones into South Korea territory, including one which flew close to Seoul. In this week’s Factal Forecast podcast, Senior Editor Jimmy Lovaas and Editor Vivian Wang discuss how North Korea’s drone flights, continued missile tests and calls for an “exponential increase” in nuclear weapons are renewing a push for improved air defenses in South Korea.

Listen now or download on your favorite platform. 

Week of Jan. 6-13
A Look Ahead

Jan. 5 – Pope Benedict funeral  

The funeral of Pope Benedict XVI, who died Sunday at age 95, will take place at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday. The sitting Pope Francis will preside over the ceremony.

What’s happened so far 
Benedict announced his retirement in 2013, becoming the first pope to step down from papacy in 600 years. At the time, he said he no longer had the physical and mental strength to hold the highest position in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis was then appointed to replace him, with Benedict continuing to live in the Vatican monastery and serving as pope emeritus.

The impact 
Thousands of people are expected to attend his funeral, with many others paying their respects in the days leading up to it as Benedict lies in state at St. Peter’s Basilica. While many hope he will be canonized as a saint, Benedict’s rule over the Catholic Church didn’t come without its controversies, including clerical child sex abuse allegations and claims of corruption within the Vatican. The ceremony is expected to be “simple, solemn and sober,” according to his wishes, with Italy and Benedict’s native Germany serving as the official delegations. Other countries’ representatives have been told they can attend in a private capacity

Jan. 7 – Deadline for decision on Trump’s return to Facebook

Facebook parent company Meta is set to decide by Saturday whether to allow former U.S. President Donald Trump to return to the social media platform and Instagram. 

What’s happened so far 
Trump was banned from Meta’s Facebook and Instagram following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The company initially determined the ban would last indefinitely but later decided it would be revised after two years, ending this coming Saturday. A Meta spokesperson recently confirmed to CNN that the company would make an announcement “in the coming weeks.”

The impact 
Social media played a decisive role in securing Trump the presidency in 2016, but the former president said he had no interest in rejoining Twitter after new owner Elon Musk announced he would be reinstating his account. The outcome of Meta’s decision will be incredibly divisive one either way, with analysts arguing that a continued ban from the platforms will continue to “inflame tensions with Republican allies” who have accused the company of censoring conservative views.

Jan. 7 – Biden, Trudeau in Mexico 

On Saturday, U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will travel to the North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico City, hosted by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

What’s happened so far 
Following the November 2021 meeting in Washington hosted by Biden, the summit’s regular schedule appears to have resumed after no summits were held during the Trump presidency. This will be the 10th trilateral summit since it was first convened in 2005.

The impact 
The three leaders are expected to discuss economic stability, jobs and immigration, with the United States and Mexico dealing with a surge in the number of migrants at the border. Biden is expected to lobby his Mexican counterpart to increase security at the border. Clean energy and supply chain issues will also likely be on the agenda, as the global economy continues to undergo volatility.

Jan. 8 – Panama starts census process

After postponing its census in 2020 due to coronavirus, Panama will officially begin the process on Sunday.

What’s happened so far 
Following the 2020 postponement, no official date had been set to begin the two-month process until this last August. Months of planning have led to the appointment of 7,000 census takers, with more than 2,000 additional supervisors, for an estimated cost of almost $55 million. The time period to conduct the census will end March 24, 2023, and results are expected around October or November

The impact 
A long-awaited national census brings with it the expectation that funding for developmental programs and future public policies will be thought out according to the general trends in population, economic growth and development that the country is undergoing. The Panamanian government has already announced plans to punish individuals who refuse to take part, with fines ranging from $10 to $1,000, but it is not expected families will willingly choose not to participate. With more than 10 years since the last census, it’ll be a strong indication of where Panama is demographically after the pandemic and how it can continue growing.

Jan. 8 – China reopens borders, abandons quarantine measures 

China will further ease its strict coronavirus restrictions Sunday after almost three years since its “zero-Covid” policy came into effect.

What’s happened so far 
Chinese officials announced the measure on Dec. 26 after a brief episode of anti-lockdown protests (member’s link). The country will drop testing for inbound travelers and imported foods on arrival and scrap mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for the virus. Limitations on international travel on airlines and mandatory quarantines will also be lifted. Those entering the country will still need to provide a negative PCR test result taken no longer than 48 hours before their arrival. The measures apply to Chinese nationals and foreigners with work or study permits. 

The impact 
Since the announcement, a number of countries have announced mandatory testing for all travelers arriving from China amid fears of renewed spread in nations that have achieved significant containment of the virus. Western officials have raised concerns over the transparency of coronavirus data coming from China and about the resistance of Chinese leaders to immunize its population with foreign vaccines. Chinese officials claim this response is prejudiced and aimed at harming the country’s reputation.

Jan. 10 – France presents pension reform bill  

French President Emmanuel Macron will present the latest version of his much-delayed plan to reform the country’s complex pensions system in an address Tuesday

What’s happened so far
Unifying France’s 42 separate pension schemes into a single unified system was a key campaign pledge of Macron’s when he entered office in 2017. However, his first attempt to do so in December 2019 was met with months of mass protests and strike action led by France’s powerful unions. In a New Year’s Eve speech, Macron signaled he would be prioritizing the issue in 2023, describing it as “the year of pension reform.” 

The impact 
The initial reform plans had included an extension of the state pension age to 65, from the current 62, a proposal to which Macron appears committed despite its unpopularity. Unions and political opponents have already signaled their discontent, raising concerns over further strike action and protests at a fragile time for France’s economy given the energy crisis. After Tuesday’s announcement, parliamentarians will debate the legislation, as the government intends to implement the reforms by the end of summer.

Jan. 13 – Japan, U.S. hold summit in Washington 

During a meeting Friday, U.S. and Japanese officials are expected to discuss Japan’s new security policy amid growingly assertive Chinese military operations in the region and North Korean nuclear threats.

What’s happened so far 
The summit was organized after Japan announced its biggest military buildup since World War II in December last year, making the country the world’s third-biggest military spender after the United States and China. As the Russian invasion on Ukraine challenges regional and international stability, the Japanese government has expressed concern over the strategic threat posed by China and North Korea, while the United States seeks to strengthen its influence in the region.

The impact 
This will be Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s first summit at the White House since he took office last year. While Japan makes changes to its long-standing post-war pacifist policy, the summit could bring about closer cooperation between the two global powers.

What Else Matters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands in front of dozens of other men. All are in suits.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang to celebrate the New Year. (Photo: KCNA)

Arrest of Bolivia’s Santa Cruz governor

Thousands of people in Bolivia’s largest and wealthiest department continue to protest after the Dec. 28 arrest of Santa Cruz Governor Luis Camacho, a main figure in the opposition against socialist President Luis Arce. The arrest stems back to 2019 when leftist Evo Morales left office and right-wing Jeanine Añez was installed as president. Añez is currently serving a 10-year sentence for allegedly illegally taking over the presidency. Road blockages by angry protesters threatened to slow the transportation of food out of Santa Cruz, the country’s economic stronghold. 

Watch for: The arrest showed the political differences between the political capital of La Paz and the economic powerhouse of Santa Cruz. It also highlights cracks between Arce and Morales, who has criticized the current government at times and still has a large following. If the protests continue, it could force Arce to choose between placating the protesters or the former president. Continued protests could also hurt the country’s bottom line if exports drop significantly.

North Korea tensions 

After a year of conducting an unprecedented number of weapons tests, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile launches in five years, North Korea has continued its shows of military defiance into 2023. Late December, South Korea detected five drones from North Korea entering its airspace, including one that traveled as far as northern Seoul. South Korea scrambled jets and fired warning shots in response, but failed to shoot down any of the drones before they flew back to North Korea or disappeared from radar. North Korea followed up with three more missile launches on New Year’s Eve and another on New Year’s Day in what state media called performance tests for super-large multiple rocket launch systems. 

Watch for: South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has called for his country to strengthen its air defenses and domestic drone program in response to North Korea’s drone incursion, while the military apologized for its failure to shoot them down. On the other side of the border, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened the new year with calls for an “exponential increase” in nuclear weapons and new intercontinental ballistic missiles, labeling South Korea an “undoubted enemy.” Tensions are likely to keep rising as North Korea continues to push weapon development, and South Korea’s conservative presidential administration maintains its hard line on North Korea.

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

Jan. 6-13

Jan. 6

  • Khaliji 25 soccer tournament in Iraq

Jan. 7

  • Biden, Trudeau in Mexico
  • China to reopen borders and abandon all coronavirus-related quarantine measures

Jan. 8

  • Benin legislative elections

Jan. 9

  • Nigeria cash-withdrawal limit goes into effect
  • College Football Playoff National Championship

Jan. 10

  • France presents pension reform bill
  • Italian Senate vote on Ukraine decree

Jan. 13

  • Czech Republic presidential elections
  • European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen visits Sweden 

Jan. 14-20 

Jan. 14

  • Kazakh Senate election

Jan. 16

  • World Economic Forum
  • World Future Energy Summit

Jan. 17

  • North Korea Supreme People’s Assembly session
  • United States Conference of Mayors meeting

Jan. 18

  • NATO military chiefs meeting

Jan. 20

  • Start of electoral campaign in Tunisia

Jan. 21-27 

Jan. 21 

  •  Slovakia Referendum Election
  • 2023 Winter European Youth Olympic Festival 

Jan. 22

  • Lunar New Year

Jan. 23

  • EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting

Jan. 25

  • EU justice ministers meet in Stockholm

Jan. 28-Feb. 3 

Jan. 30

  • World Health Organization executive board meets

Jan. 31

  • Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan

Feb. 3

  • EU-Ukraine summit

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