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NightWatch 20100523

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For the Night of 23 May 2010

Japan-US: Update. Japan and the United States reached agreement 22 May on a plan to relocate the US Marine Corps airbase at Futenma, Okinawa Prefecture, Reuters reported. The new agreement makes only minor changes to the 2006 agreement that Prime Minister Hatoyama promised to scrap.

A new runway would still be built on Nago's coast near an existing U.S. base, but a decision on the exact location and construction method would be left until fall, prior to a visit to Japan by U.S. President Obama. The two sides also agreed to consider moving some base functions to areas outside Okinawa.

Prime Minister Hatoyama said 23 May that a U.S. military base will remain in Okinawa, CNN reported. Hatoyama had promised during his campaign to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to another island, but said it will instead be relocated to the less-densely populated Henoko area of the island. Hatoyama said the decision was heartbreaking, and apologized to Okinawans that the conclusion is not what they had wanted.

Comment: The crisis over the sinking of the patrol ship Cheonan probably contributed to Hatoyama's decision to not inject any more strain in the US security relationship. The North unwittingly gave Hatoyama an exit that saves face and is defensible on national security grounds, despite the disappointment of the Okinawans. Now is not the time to show North Korea any fractures among the Allies.

North Korea-South Korea: Pyongyang's government demanded for a second time that South Korea accept a delegation to verify Seoul's claim that the North had sunk the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, Yonhap reported 22 May. North Korea first made the demand on 20 May in the statement that threatened all out war in response to any retaliation. The South Korean government rejected the first demand and will likely to the same to the second.

During this Watch, President Lee announced that South Korea is suspending all trade with North Korea and is referring the matter of the sinking to the United Nations. He did not say, however, that he was suspending South Korean participation in joint ventures, though the North already has frozen or seized most of them.

The tone represents are return to the hard-line stand early in President Lee's administration. He referred to the North as "one of the most war-mongering nations on Earth."

A new American intelligence analysis has concluded that North Korean leader Kim Chong-Il likely authorized the torpedo assault to help secure the succession of his youngest son, The New York Times reported 22 May. The senior American officials who compiled the highly classified assessment cautioned that it was based on their sense of the political dynamics there rather than hard evidence.

Comment: An alternative analysis is that the sinking was a delayed retaliation by North Korea for the loss of one of its patrol craft in an encounter late last year. The linking to succession seems strained and inconsistent with a behavioral trend of nearly groveling for Chinese aid.

The "even the score" interpretation implies that this was a one time event, consistent with the customs of the two Koreas. The relationship to succession interpretation portends other events of this kind are likely in the name of Kim Jung-un, the heir apparent, to create a fake image of his leadership capabilities.

If the ship sinking is the start of a trend, the North will never achieve its development goals for 2012 because no major country wants another conflict; the Chinese above all have made clear their development goals require stability in Northeast Asia.

It is not clear which of the two interpretations is dominant. What is clear is that the North effectively knocked Six Party Talks and a freeze of its nuclear program off the top of the strategic agenda. It is made itself the focus of international attention in Northeast Asia, which it always considers an important accomplishment, even negative attention contains opportunities for extortion.

China-South Korea: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to visit South Korea later this week, setting the stage for discussions on the ship sinking. Wen plans to hold a summit with the South Korean president on Friday in Seoul before flying to the southern resort island of Jeju the next day for an annual trilateral summit that also involves Japan's prime minister. It would be Wen's first trip here since 2007.

Beijing's role is crucial in Seoul's plan to seek to punish Pyongyang. China, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, called for restraint by related nations in handling the matter, saying it would make its own assessment of the results of the South Korean investigation.

Thailand: The government will extend the curfew to 25 May in several provinces and elections will not be held in the country until protests by the anti-government Red Shirt movement end, according to a statement by Prime Minister Abhisit on 23 May. He said it is now up to the protesters to determine when elections will be held, and that some have said they will continue their fight and hold a protest in June.

Abhisit also said Bangkok was calm and returning to normal after a massive clean-up. He said that schools, streets and government agencies would reopen Monday. The security checkpoints, road closures and rolls of razor wire were being scaled back as Thailand prepared to get back to business after the civil unrest that has left 86 dead and 1,900 injured.

The government on Saturday displayed a huge cache of weapons it said had been collected from the ruins of the rally encampment.

Iran-US: The BBC reported on 23 May that Iran has invited a swap of the three US back-packers it holds who are charged with espionage. The invitation requires the US to find some trade goods to offer Iran, instead of the more normal practice of stating the terms of the exchange.

Iran's new found flexibility in handling the three Americans appears directly proportional to the proximity of new sanctions. Still the offer contains less than it seems because the manner of its presentation makes the US a supplicant for Iranian approval. Not a chance.

Ethiopia: In today's national elections, some 32 million people were registered to elect 547 members of the lower House of Representatives, along with regional councilors who in turn choose the upper house of parliament.

The BBC reported voting was smooth and steady in the capital, Addis Ababa, but the opposition said there had been irregularities elsewhere in the country. Officials have dismissed the claims.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a Western ally against militants in Somalia, is seeking re-election. Ethiopia's electoral commission has until 21 June to declare the results. Zeles is excpected to win, which is good news for US interests in the Horn of Africa.

End of NightWatch for 23 May.

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