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NightWatch 20110606


For the Night of 6 June 2011

North Korea-China: North Korea plans to develop two large islands in the estuary of the Yalu River on the northwest border with China, northeast of Dandong, China. The Supreme People's Assembly approved the development plan, according a 6 June statement published by the Korean Central News Agency.

According to the plan, North Korea would lease Wihwa Island (Weihua Island, in Chinese) and Hwanggeumpyeong (Huangjinping, in Chinese) as Free Trade Zones in order to reduce trade barriers and bureaucratic requirements between the two countries. Chinese nationals and foreigners would be able to enjoy visa-free status when traveling to the two islands. The duration of the lease would be 50 years and could be extended to as long as 100 years.

Comment: Kim Chong-il first proposed a free trade zone in the estuary in 2009 and has repeated the proposal in every meeting with Chinese officials since, according to Chinese press. The most recent news was in December 2010.

One theory is that Kim offered to lease the islands to China in return for Chinese support for his son's succession. For NightWatch, a more plausible hypothesis is that Kim is so desperate for hard currency that he is willing to do nearly anything, including lease parts of the national patrimony to China.

While the North Korean legislature has approved the lease arrangement, Chinese media and officials have been silent, perhaps waiting for the Supreme People's Assembly's approval as a sign of earnest.

Free trade zones backed only by North Korea have been economic disasters. It is too soon to determine whether Chinese-backed free trade zones with North Korea can be profitable.

Vietnam-China: Vietnamese authorities allowed small numbers of protestors to demonstrate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on 5 June against Chinese aggressive actions in the South China Sea. On Sunday, the protesters in Hanoi shouted slogans including "The Paracels and Spratlys belong to Vietnam", a reference to two groups of islands claimed by both countries. They also carried signs that read, "Stop Chinese invasion of Vietnam's islands."

The rare weekend news report about the protests followed a confrontation in the South China Sea between a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship and Chinese patrol boats. Tension has increased since the incident on 26 May in which cables of a Vietnamese ship conducting seismic research were cut when the ship was about 120km (80 miles) off Vietnam's south-central coast.

One of three Chinese patrol vessels on the scene intentionally cut a submerged cable towed by the Vietnamese ship, the Binh Minh 02, according to Do Van Hau, deputy chief executive of state oil and gas group PetroVietnam, which was operating the ship. "Chinese vessels were at very high speed and did not respond to our ship's warning and then cut the cables of the Binh Minh 02, about 2km from where it was positioned," he said.

"The Vietnamese navy will do everything necessary to firmly protect peace and the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Vietnam," foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said.

China denies the allegation. The foreign ministry blamed Vietnam for the incident, saying its oil and gas operations "undermined China's interests and jurisdictional rights." China's claim in the South China Sea is by far the largest, and includes the Spratly and Paracel islands.

The Philippines also recently protested Chinese aggressive behavior against a Philippine ship in the  island areas west of Palawan Island that the Philippines claims .

Taiwan, as the Republic of China, recently announced it would improve the defense capability of more than 100 coastguard troops stationed on Spratly Island, an important source of guano.

Comment: Despite Chinese assurances in a recent conference in Singapore that it will pursue peaceful resolution of disputes, the actions of its maritime agencies expose that the Chinese diplomats appear to be playing with language again. For China, there is no dispute over the South China Sea: it is Chinese. That is precisely how its agents are acting.

There will be more confrontations because China will not compromise on its claim that all of the South China Sea is Chinese. Some confrontations may be expected to escalate to exchanges of gunfire, ship seizures, harassment and even capture of crews.

Yemen: Update. Today the government announced that President Saleh would return to Sanaa in a few days. That led to more clashes between government security forces and the tribes.

Yemeni rebel tribesmen said they are committed to a cease-fire with government forces, despite violations by President Saleh's forces, a spokesman for Sadiq al Ahmar, the head of the Hashid tribe, said on 6 June. Two of al Ahmar's fighters were killed early 6 June by government snipers.

Al Ahmar has announced several times that he and his family do not seek power after Saleh steps down, and they support a power transfer to Yemeni Vice President Abd-al Rab Mansour al-Hadi, the spokesman said.

Comment: The opposition's celebration of the ouster of Saleh over the weekend might prove premature. If Saleh continues to adhere to the Syrian playbook, more bloodshed will follow his return to Sanaa. Nevertheless, the tribes' willingness to accept Vice President Hadi as a transitional leader offers the promise that a power sharing arrangement is achievable.

Syria: Syrian security forces lost control around the northwestern town of Jisr al Shughour where state television reported 120 security forces were killed in an attack, a Syrian government spokesman said 6 June. Syrian Information Minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud said the attack began at dawn and the armed men periodically gained control of some areas around Jisr al Shughour.

During this Watch, the Damascus government vowed revenge and to take back the town.

Comment: All day the number of killed Syrian security forces rose steadily, raising a suspicion of official manipulation, probably to justify treating the town as an object lesson for protestors.

In the four months of unrest, few opposition elements have used weapons against Syrian government forces. The government's monopoly of force has enabled the survival of the Alawite regime.

The attack at Jisr al Shughour implies that the government's advantage is being undermined, four months into the uprising. That is a potentially ominous portent that compels the Asad regime not only to exterminate the Jisr al Shughour armed gangs but also to find out the source of the weapons.

Some accounts claim army soldiers refused to fire on civilians and turned their weapons against other security forces. If confirmed, this would be the first credible incident of a break down in military discipline. If the forces fracture, Syria risks evolving into a Yemen-type instability problem and Bashar al Asad might be replaced by his uncle Rifaat, brother of Hafez and a former special forces colonel, or other more reliable Alawite leader.

Palestinians in Syria: On 6 June, fourteen Palestinian refugees reportedly have been killed and another 43 injured in Al-Yarmok, an unofficial Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, according to the Palestinian government WAFA news agency. The refugees were mourning the death of between 10 to 23 Palestinians who were killed in clashes with Israeli forces on the Golan Heights on 5 June.

According to the news account, an estimated 100,000 mourners allegedly attacked the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, and the militants opened fire on the group. Those injured were taken to a camp hospital for treatment and 14 were pronounced dead, the hospital staff said.

Comment: Apparently the Palestinian mourners turned their grief against one of their own leadership elements whose soldiers fired on them, as the Israelis did on Sunday.

Egypt: For the record. The Egyptian Committee of Parties' Affairs officially recognized the Freedom and Justice Party, created by the Muslim Brotherhood, because it met all requirements stipulated by the New Parties Law, according to a statement from the judicial committee on 6 June, The Egyptian Gazette reported.

Comment: Six months ago, the Brotherhood and all its affiliates were banned as threats to Egyptian national security.

End of NightWatch for 6 June.

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