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NightWatch 20111229


For the night of 29 December 2011

North Korea: The official media announced on 29 December that the title of "Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Hero" has been awarded to Kim Chong-il, general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army. The citation included the following,

"Kim Chong-il performed undying revolutionary feats for the country and its people, the times and history by wisely leading the Workers' Party of Korea, army and people for decades since he embarked upon the road of revolution in his early years."

Comment: The significance of the posthumous tribute, the highest state honor, is that official announcement indicates the deceased Kim Chong-il still officially holds the positions of power in North Korea, just as Kim Il-sung is still the President of North Korea, for eternity.

All official references to Kim Jong-un in North Korean media are careful to cite his official position as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK Central Committee. His deceased father, Kim Chong-il, remains the Chairman of the Central Military Commission by virtue of his remaining general-secretary of the Party.

This seems trivial, but it is important because as long as Kim Chong-il holds the top positions, the chain of command is unbroken. It means that any opposition to Kim Jong-un would be considered opposition to Kim Chong-il and Kim Il-sung, who is still the President.

That is not a sign of a stable power transition, but it is the North Korean way. For the same reason, in 1994, Kim Chong-il refused to become the President of North Korea, so as to remain under the protective aura of his father. Even so, while most of the Army remained loyal to Kim Chong-il, there were multiple reports of assassination attempts against him in 1994 and a major military formation revolted in early 1995.

Thus, it is premature to declare the power transition stable: it is just beginning, having been on hold during the mourning period. It is not clear when or whether Kim Jong-un will gain the confidence, support and political authority to assume the positions his father still holds in death. Investiture of Kim Jong-un with his father's positions would be an important indicator of his actual hold on power.

The references to supreme leader. Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's octogenarian ceremonial head of state (President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly), and companion of Kim Il-sung gave the eulogy for Kim Chong-il. All the old revolutionaries who served with Kim Il-sung came out for the funeral, some of them in their 90's, to back the first family.

In his eulogy, Kim Yong Nam praised Kim Jong-un and referred to him as "the supreme leader of our party and army and people," using the precise language that the Korean Central News Agency carried on 28 December. Supreme leader is not an official title in North Korea, as it is in Iran. Kim Jong-un is the designated successor, but the process is far from complete, as highlighted by the endless propaganda extolling a young leader with no apparent accomplishments. Even by North Korean standards, the praise is over the top. That is not a healthy sign.

Afghanistan-China: On 28 December the Karzai government signed its first oil-field production contract. Almost predictably, it was signed with China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) for the development of oil blocks in the Amu Darya basin. The Amu Darya, also known as the Oxus, is the river that forms the northern border between Afghanistan and central Asian states.

The 25-year contract covers drilling and construction of a refinery in the provinces of Sar-e-Pol and Faryab, in northwestern Afghanistan on the Turkmenistan border. "In 30 days from now they (CNPC) will shift their experts and equipment to the site," Mining Minister Wahidullah Shahrani told a news conference. "The practical work will start in October 2012."

State-owned CNPC and joint venture partner Watan Group, a diversified Afghan company, will explore for oil in three fields in the basin -- Kashkari, Bazarkhami and Zamarudsay -- which are estimated to hold around 87 million barrels of oil

Comment: Faryab and Sar-e-Pol provinces both experience anti-government attacks mainly from groups protected by Pashtun enclaves in their main cities, but violence is far less than in Konduz to the east or in the Pashtun south. The Karzai government has promised to provide special security arrangements and NATO forces will be available as well. It expects to earn billions annually once production begins, based on the price of oil remaining above $100 per barrel.

This is the second major Chinese resource contract in Afghanistan. In 2008, Metallurgical Corp of China signed a contract to develop the huge Aynak copper mine south of Kabul, which is due to start producing by the end of 2014.

The Chinese continue to invest in high risk regions in order to secure rights to natural resources. They have contributed nothing to the fight against the Taliban, but consistently position themselves eventually to reap the benefits of the NATO and US exertions and sacrifices in Afghanistan.

Iran-US: For the record. The Fifth Fleet announced today that two US Navy ships transited the Strait of Hormuz without incident. The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay "performed a pre-planned, routine transit through the Strait of Hormuz" on Tuesday, 27 December, a spokesperson said. The US ships paid a visit to the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates before traveling through the strait to the Arabian Sea, where the vessels will provide air power for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, the statement said.

"Our interaction with the regular Iranian Navy continues to be within the standards of maritime practice, well-known, routine and professional," according to an email from Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

Iraq: Update. A news broadcast on 28 December announced, "After the continuous absence of the Al-Iraqiyah List ministers from the Council of Ministers' meetings, sources in the National Alliance have stated that the absentees were replaced. The replacements included the ministers of education and finance, who were replaced by Planning Minister Ali al-Shukri as acting finance minister and Ali al-Adib as acting education minister."

Comment: This means Prime Minister al Maliki has wasted no time in replacing the Sunni Arabs who were in his cabinet under the coalition agreement. It is a normal political move when a party suspends participation in a government, but the circumstances in Iraq are not normal.

The same thing happened in Pakistan this year, but Prime Minister Gilani and party leaders remained open to negotiations to rebuild a coalition so as to avoid a government collapse and early elections.

Al- Maliki shows few indications he is bothered by the prospect of heading a minority government or other parliamentary procedures. The purge of the Sunni Arabs continues.

End of NightWatch for 29 December.

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