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NightWatch 20120109


For the night of 9 January 2012

North Korea: Sunday, 8 January, was the birthday of Kim Jong-un, but it passed without fanfare. Instead, millions of North Koreans viewed a 50-minute television program showing Kim Jong-un greeting enthusiastic soldiers, driving a military tank, handling weapons, sitting in the cockpit of a military aircraft and riding a horse.

Comment: North Korean propagandists have indulged in the theater of the absurd with the 50 minute documentary on the military genius of a young man raised in a Swiss boarding school who has never worn a uniform, never trained with a weapon and never done a pushup as an adult. In North Korean tanks and personnel carriers and in all North Korean combat aircraft, Kim Jong-un probably would be disqualified as a crew member or pilot because his girth would not allow him to fit, except for a photo op. Armor and flight officers have strict height, weight and girth requirements.

In their zeal to manufacture a leader, the propagandists risk blow back from real soldiers. There were numerous assassination attempts against Kim Chong-il by soldiers because he had no military background, never wore a uniform or submitted to military training. He had a half-brother who did, however, and rose to the rank of colonel, but was exiled to Poland as an ambassador.

Only Kim Il-sung was a genuine, Soviet-trained and advised military leader. Kim Jong-un resembles his grandfather in appearance, but that is where the likeness ends. This leadership transition is not being well-handled, from outside appearances, and cannot be considered stable based on the need to manufacture military credentials for Kim Jong-un.

The need to manufacture military credentials for the successor is the best evidence yet that the military are in control and must be placated. The family leadership group around Kim Jong-un appears to want to restore the party's authority, which Kim Chong-il eviscerated and reviled for most of his tenure. However, in the short term, they cannot. Thus they apparently must pander first to the Korean People's Army. The Army, for now, is dominant in this power struggle, but the tension offers opportunities for South Korea and the US to nurture greater Party control.

North Korea- US: According to the news reports, North Korea reopened food aid talks with the US at the end of December, following the funeral of the late Kim Chong-il. North Korean leaders reportedly have asked through their United Nations representatives for more rice, corn and other grains in the food aid the U.S. had suggested in an earlier meeting.

At the last meeting in Beijing on 15 December, two days before Kim Chong-il died, the US suggested providing 20,000 tons of nutritional biscuits, powdered milk and vitamins for children and the elderly.

Comment: The US humanitarian offer is generous, but unrelated to anything North Koreans routinely eat. For example, if the water is bad, as it usually is, the powdered milk is a potential disease spreader.

The key point is the North needs food and looks to the US for help, regardless of the hostile public image. The North's need, the weakness of the succession leadership and US abundance create an opportunity to make the new leadership slightly indebted to the US, behind the scenes.

China-South Korea: Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged "unremitting efforts" to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula during talks Monday, 9 January, with his South Korean counterpart, President Lee Myong-Bak.

Comment: Every action China takes in respect of North Korea will be devoted to "stability", largely because of the ripple effects of the debt crisis in Europe. Chinese economic and political leaders expect slower growth in 2012 as the result of reduced demand in European markets, but are concerned about "hidden" vulnerabilities. Significant instability in North Korea would pose an unplanned burden on Chinese economic prospects - a hidden vulnerability. Thus, when the Chinese leaders say they want stability, they are quite serious and are more vulnerable to pressure this year than in the past, owing to the European debt crisis.

Iran-Venezuela: For the record. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez lavished each other with praise on Monday, mocked U.S. disapproval and joked about having an atomic bomb at their disposal. Ahmadi-Nejad was in Venezuela at the start of a tour intended to shore up support in Latin America in anticipation of expanded Western economic sanctions because of Iran's nuclear program.

Comment: Ahmadi-Nejad also is looking to build his leadership credentials in anticipation of elections this year. His trip is an act of defiance against Western sanctions and attempts to isolate Iran.

Turkey: For the record. Late last week retired Chief of the General Staff General Basbug was arrested for plotting to overthrow the Erdogan government in a military coup.

Basbug's conviction would largely confirm the political neutering of the Turkish General Staff and eliminate the Army as an obstacle to Turkey's gradual evolution into an Islamic republic, whose economy is about to crash. Before the end of 2012, European bankers will be vindicated further in their refusal to allow Turkey to join the European Union.

Kenya-Somalia: A Kenya Army spokesman said that Kenyan air strikes on Friday, 6 January, inflicted heavy casualties on al Shabaab fighters in Garbahare in southern Somalia. Provisional casualty figures are that Al-Shabaab lost 60 or more fighters, and more than 50 were injured, according to the Kenyans. "We will keep hitting them (Shabaab) until their spine is completely broken ... and we will relish that moment," the spokesman said.

Comment: Kenya sent a reinforced brigade of troops, supported by tactical aircraft, into Somalia in October 2011 to punish al Shabaab militants for a spate of attacks in Kenya. They are fighting alongside Somali pro-government forces and clans.

Ethiopian forces returned to Somalia in November, and last month fought alongside pro-government gunmen to take control of Beledweyne in central Somalia's Hiran region from the insurgents. The size of the Ethiopian force has not been reported in open sources. Kenya said it had exchanged liaison officers with the Ethiopian army, but that the two fronts remained separate.

Finally, a 10,000-strong African Union force, made up of troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti, is defending the Western-backed government in Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab is being squeezed steadily on three fronts and appears to be losing ground.

Note to analysts: Insurgency may be analyzed as an equation in which the combat strength of the insurgents equals the combat strength of the forces of order. It is a chronic condition so long as the equation endures.

If one or other side receives a significant increase in resources, insurgency morphs. If the insurgents receive outside help, they evolve into a revolutionary movement. If the government receives significant outside help, its area of control expands and the insurgency devolves into a police problem, as in Indian Kashmir.

The introduction of the African Union forces in 2007 was the beginning of the creation of a stable security condition. Al Shabaab's capabilities were checked by the Mogadishu government backers and the African Union forces. That equation lasted until late last year, when Kenya and Ethiopia added combat power to the forces supporting the Mogadishu government.

Those additional resources have unbalanced the equation, in favor of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab has no additional resources to draw on that can restore the equation as it was last summer. It is not yet clear that the additional Kenyan and Ethiopian -- Christian - forces are sufficient to reduce al Shabaab to banditry, but that is the direction in which al Shabaab is heading.

Readers may be confident that the US, and apparently France, have a significant role in crafting and providing logistic support for the conditions for the eventual destruction of al Shabaab, by working with and through African surrogates. The strategy appears to be working and that is tonight's good news.

End of NightWatch for 9 January.

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