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NightWatch 20110131


For the Night of 31 January 2011

South Korea: For the record. The government in Seoul rejected a North Korean proposal to hold working-level military talks at an earlier date. Seoul insists on 11 February as the date for the new round of working-level meetings, an official said.

Comment: The continuation of the wrangling over a date means officials on both sides are engaged still. That is good news.

North Korea-UN: North Korea may have additional clandestine atomic facilities, according to anonymous UN Security Council diplomats. The assessment came from a confidential report compiled by the UN Panel of Experts. The report was based on the panel's investigations and analysis as well as talks with US nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who saw hundreds of uranium enriching centrifuges while in North Korea in 2010. The report says the program is not operational, but the report mentions other clandestine facilities, one envoy said.

Comment: The key statement in the excerpts from the report is that the centrifuge cascade that Hecker and other physicists observed is that the cascade is not operational.

At last the UN panel has provided information that fits with North Korean negotiating practice. NightWatch has been to Pyongyang and directly observed what outwardly looked like modern systems that simply did not work. They existed only for show for the benefit of foreign visitors.

The trip into fantasy land begins at the international airport terminal at Sunan, some 40 miles from Pyongyang, where carousels shine luminously in the dim light of the baggage hall. They simply do not operate because they are not connected to a power source nor have a connection to the baggage crews on the runway. Newly arrived passengers wait for the carousels to start spinning, until the airport baggage crews begin hand carrying luggage into the baggage hall for pick up.

There are phones in the terminal on every desk and wall, but only for calls inside the terminal. Only a few special phones under the control of government agents actually connect to the central post and telegraphs Ministry in Pyongyang. The operators work manually. Having reached the Ministry exchange in Pyongyang, an operator can connect to a hotel or government office, provided the appropriate forms are filled out, signed, dated and approved.

The Pyongyang street car system is similar. It sort of works with the help of rugged Czech-made cars, but the tracks are so crooked that they are like being in a cartoon caricature of a light rail system. The light rail system runs from nowhere to nowhere and exists primarily for impressing visitors.

NightWatch could cite a half dozen other examples of displays for show in Pyongyang that do not work, including the 105-storey hotel that is visibly canted so that it can never house guests, plus high-rise apartment buildings that have no plumbing above the second floor and no elevators, but are occupied to the tenth floor because apartments are scarce. We declined to ask how the residents deal with organic waste.

These practices are how the North reinforces its national self-image. The implication is that it is dangerous to trust anything modern in North Korea without seeing it actually work and produce something.,

Iran: For the record. Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, two of three U.S. nationals detained by Iranian border guards on 31 July 2009, will be tried on 6 February by Bench 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, IRNA reported, citing a judiciary spokesman. Third detainee Sarah Shourd, released on bail in September 2010, was also summoned. The three are faced with illegal entry and espionage charges.

Comment: The good news is that there is movement. Alternatively, the two young men could have stayed in prison indefinitely without trial. This does not mean that they will be allowed to leave Iran eventually. However, they are being given a chance to bargain for their freedom, depending on how they behave in court plus any deals struck outside of court.

Egypt: Late on 31 January, the Egyptian Army issued a statement that announced that the Army will not use force against the demonstrators. The demands of the Egyptian people are "legitimate," the military said Monday, vowing not to crush mass anti-government protests called for Tuesday. "To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people... have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people," as reported by Egypt's official MENA news agency.

The armed forces also stressed that everyone's peaceful freedom of expression was guaranteed; that no one should act in a way that endangered Egypt's safety and security nor damage public or private property; that the military was aware of the citizens' legitimate demands, and that the military's presence on the streets was for the citizens' safety and security

Comment: This is the most significant development in the past week. It constitutes a pre-emptive attack against Mubarak's new, kinder-gentler government. The message is a warning against the scheduled crackdown because the Army will not back it. It effectively neuters the regime's ability to suppress the protests; encourages the protestors and guarantees that Mubarak cannot remain in office. He has lost the support of the Army. The balance of the guns now favors the opposition.

The over-reaction threat fizzled. The government is now making more concessions and trying to find people who will serve in the cabinet. The Mubarak regime is winding down, trying to find a line it can hold long enough for it to it move national treasure out of the country as fast as time permits.

Readers are witnessing a set of stalling tactics by a dying regime.

The Army/armed forces now appear to be dominant, not the civilian politicians. No one seems to be in charge of anything. The government selected by Mubarak only makes sense as a stalling action that enables Mubarak and his cronies to wind up last minute affairs. These men could never be the agents of reforms they fought viciously during the past three decades.

Every leader of Egypt since the overthrow of the monarchy by Colonel Nasser in 1952 has been a military officer. Readers should expect a military officer to emerge as the power behind the presidency. The key point is that an Army-backed government is likely for now, and will perpetuate the status quo as long as it can.

On 1 February, during this Watch, a million-person demonstration has begun to assemble in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Army has promised not to interfere. This might determine whether the son-of-Mubarak government lasts, an Army-baked interim government restores some stability of whether a genuine revolution takes place in the second phase of unrest.

Ripple Effects

Syria: President Bashar al Asad said he will push for more political reforms, adding that Arab leaders need to accommodate their people's rising political and economic aspirations. He said he will push toward initiating municipal elections, empowering nongovernmental organizations and establishing new media laws.

Asad said that Syria needs time to build institutions and improve education before opening politically, or the demands for political reform could prove counterproductive and too much for Arab societies. He said if Arab leaders did not see the need for reform before Tunisia and Egypt, it is too late for reform now.

Comment: Asad was careful to avoid the issue of voting rights. That is because he heads a minority government of pro-Iranian Arab Alawites, a sect of Shi'ism that has ruled Syria's Sunni Arab majority populace with brutality for decades. The regime has leveled whole towns who opposed the Alawites.

A revolution in Syria would be welcomed throughout the Sunni Arab street, but not by the Persians in Tehran.

End of NightWatch for 31 January .

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