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NightWatch 20110113


For the Night of 13 January 2011

North Korea-South Korea: North Korea continues to press South Korea to reactivate the military hotline at Panmunjom; wants the South to resume tours to the Mount Kumgang resort on the east coast, and wants to restore the North-South liaison office at the Kaesong joint industrial zone. All of these were announced within the past week.

Reinforced by the visit of US Defense Secretary Gates, South Korea still insists on an apology for the ship sinking last March and the shelling in November, plus damages, a return of buildings confiscated at Mount Kumgang as well as a commitment to stop provocations and tangible movement to halt nuclear proliferation. The North wants "unconditional" talks.

Comment: The South's list of grievances has lengthened in the past 12 months. That helps explain the North's desire for "unconditional" talks, that is, talks not impeded by up-front demands that the North pay its debts and damages.

The current warming trend does seem genuine, nonetheless. North Korea has created a website for its first ever North Korean Amateur Golf Open at the 18-hole Pyongyang Golf complex from 26 to 30 April. According to the publicity, the entry fee of 999 Euros will cover the cost of a train trip from China, visas, meals, accommodations and a three-day tour of North Korea.

The"pro" at the golf course at one time was Kim Chong-il who supposedly shot a world record of 38 on the course with 11 holes-in-one.

China-India: For the record. A new source of diplomatic stress between India and China has emerged because China refuses to stamp visas in Indian passports held by residents of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, whose ownership China also claims. The Chinese embassy in New Delhi will grant visas on separate forms stapled into the passport, a practice that does not imply official recognition of India's sovereignty over the state.

For several years China engaged in the same practice with respect to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir State. China does not recognize Indian sovereignty that state either. India does not allow its citizens to travel on stapled passports.

Comment: This is a minor issue, but it illustrates that China is pressing its claims to sovereignty on all its borders, even in small details. It would be a mistake to conclude the Chinese are singling out the Japanese over disputed islands. They have made clear they want and intend to exercise sovereignty of all areas they claim.

Lebanon: Political leaders agreed on 13 January to begin talks on rebuilding the country's government on the 17th. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said after a meeting with President Michel Suleiman that two days of talks are scheduled.

A politician said both sides are awaiting the UN-sponsored Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictment of those responsible for the murder of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. There will be no government before it is released, but for now there is no crisis atmosphere, according to most news services.

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah is expected to deliver a speech soon, possibly on the 14th.

Comment: The Special Tribunal has given no public indication when it will release its findings, but Hezbollah expects it soon, which seems to be the general consensus. Hezbollah members are expected to be indicted, which probably would be the trigger for public protests by Hezbollah supporters.

The Special Tribunal's findings are powerfully divisive in Lebanese politics. The indictment of Hezbollah operatives would undermine Hezbollah's popularity as a legitimate defender of Lebanon against the Israelis, as in 2006.

Strategically, the indictments are a proxy issue for the question whether the US, Saudi Arabia and France will succeed in maintaining a politically balanced government in Lebanon and thereby block or at least prevent the consolidation of the Syrian-Iranian influences that support Hezbollah and are hostile to Israel. Indictments charging Hezbollah members with murdering the prime minister six years ago would showcase the organization as agent of Lebanese political instability, as containing constitutional criminals and as a channel for compromising Lebanese sovereignty by increasing Iranian influence.

The political allegiances are complex and change quickly, usually determined by local political advantage. Thus at least one Christian group was in Hezbollah's bloc in parliament and others voted with Hariri, who is a Sunni. Hezbollah probably is seeking to obtain some Sunni support because the constitution requires the prime minister to be a Sunni Arab. They want a Sunni they can support, who is not caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is pro-US.

The security of Israel will be affected significantly by the outcome of the political maneuvering, which will be strongly influenced by the Special Tribunal's indictments. Violent clashes are likely after the indictments are released. Most parties want to avoid another Lebanese civil war which 1975-1990)

Tunisia: In an important televised address on 13 January, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali told the nation he understood the people's demands and promised "deep change."

He said there needed to be "reforms in politics, economy and unemployment" and that he would announce the changes. Ben Ali called unrest in the streets crime, not protest, but said he had told the interior minister to order police not to use live bullets.

He said he had requested that the government reduce prices on essential commodities, specifying sugar, bread and milk. He promised that an independent panel would transparently investigate corruption. Ben Ali vowed to prosecute some officials.

He also announced that he had decided that all media outlets "will enjoy total freedom. I have decided not to close Internet sites and to reject to exercise (Sic., as translated) all kinds of censorship over them, as long as there is respect for our ethics and the principles of media profession."

He concluded, "Presidency will not be for the lifetime." He announced that he would leave office when his term ends in 2014.

Comment: The source of Ben Ali's political epiphany is not yet known. He has exercised authoritarian rule for 23 years with little trouble. Something significant caused him to announce concessions. One source of such an event is pressure from the security establishment.

All week government censorship has hindered assessment of the security situation, especially the actions and operations of the various security forces. Reports that the army chief resigned are still not confirmed, thought Tunisian activists believe them. Similarly other reports of Army soldiers firing on policemen in interior towns remain unconfirmed. What is known is that Ben Ali pulled the Army out of Tunis on the 13th, one day after it was deployed.

There can be many explanations for such an action, such as the crisis has ended or to avoid further escalation. However, this crisis is not over yet. One certain consequence of returning the Army to barracks so quickly is that it avoids problems from requiring the nation's defenders to fire on their fellow citizens in doing police work, enforcing law and order.

In his speech Ben Ali continued to insist that outside influences contributed to or have been responsible for the clashes. That position makes it easier to justify using the Army. It is tempting to infer that the Army might have been unwilling to fire on the protestors.

Reaction to the speech in Tunis reportedly was celebratory for having achieved a political victory. Reports from outside the capital suggested a wait and see attitude. After the speech, some union leaders were still calling for general strikes.

Venezuela: The new national assembly that took office this month has scrapped a controversial education reform law that would have increased government control over universities. The law was one of about 20 laws passed by supporters of President Chavez last month in the final days of the outgoing parliament.

The education law was designed by Chavez's supporters to make universities more "democratic," by giving workers more of a say in how they are run and opening them up to more Venezuelans. Lecturers and students had protested that it would have been used to promote Chavez's socialist ideology in the universities and reduce their independence.

Chavez said last week he would veto the bill after taking "numerous criticisms" into account, and urged renewed debate on the future of higher education. "We celebrate the president's initiative in backing off this bill, because it is an unconstitutional bill which aimed to flout the principle of autonomy," said opposition assembly member Leomagno Flores.

Comment: The curious point is that the outgoing national assembly voted Chavez the authority to use decrees rather than rely on legislation to promote efficiency and establish performance norms in ten areas of national life for 18 months. Chavez could have used this power with the state universities. Evidently Venezuelans still have the power to limit in some sectors the President's implementation of his socialist vision.

End of NightWatch for 13 January.

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