For the night of 20 May 2013
Japan-North Korea: Update. Japanese government advisor Iijima had meetings with senior North Korean officials, including Kim Yong Nam. Kim is Chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and acts as the head of state for protocol purposes.
Iijima discussed the unresolved issue of abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean intelligence agents in the 1970's and 1980's and current nuclear and missile matters. Concerning the abductions, he conveyed Japan's demands that all abductees return home, that full information be released about the abductions, and that all perpetrators be transferred to Japan.
Japanese government sources said North Korean officials stated they would convey this to Kim Jong Un and then respond. Prime Minister Abe said the abduction issue is one of his top priorities. He is prepared to hold a summit meeting with North Korea leaders to settle it.
Comment: The abductions were part of intelligence operations characteristic of an earlier era when North Korea had no nuclear weapons and few ballistic missiles. All the primary personnel involved are retired, if not deceased. In other words, there appear to be conditions for reaching a deal that would benefit North Korea and Japanese Prime Minister Abe.
The nature and substance of the communications between Pyongyang and Tokyo that led to the Iijima visit are not available in the public domain. What is clear is that in receiving Iijima North Korean leaders have created an opportunity to break their isolation and get assistance from Japan. However, they must find a way to compromise and negotiate on the abduction issue.
North Korea: Between 18 and 20 May, North Korea fired six rockets or short range missiles into the Sea of Japan. South Korea, China, Russia, the UN, the US and Japan all urged restraint. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) unusually admitted the North was engaged in rocket training and asserted its sovereign right to do so without interference.
Comment: South Korean official sources initially reported the 18 May launches as short range missiles. Later, the sources said the objects were projectiles, by which they meant unguided rockets, possibly from a new multiple round rocket launcher system (MRL) with a very large caliber and long range.
There are practical reasons for periodic rocket tests and missile launches by any military force. If the projectiles prove to be big rockets, then the North might have a new MRL system that can range Seoul from north of the Demilitarized Zone. The system, its range and the reliability of its rounds would require testing. Similarly, batch testing of short range ballistic missiles also is a periodic requirement to ensure reliability.
North Korea has ranges for ordnance test firing on both coasts and performs tests on a regular monthly schedule. These firings do not fit that schedule.
KCNA described these launches in the same terms that it used to justify North Korean nuclear testing and its so-called space launch. That indicates the firings are intended to be provocative, even if the activity is a military necessity. It also might be considered a political success because no one attacked the North nor increased sanctions in response.
To the neighboring and interested states, the firings were annoying and justify continued vigilance. To North Korea, they could provide the grounds for declaring victory in the confrontation that the North says continues.
Kaesong. A clarification. "A spokesman for the General Bureau for Central Guidance for the Development of the Special Zone gave the following answer to KCNA Monday in connection with the fact that the South Korean authorities keep groundlessly pulling up the DPRK while evading the settlement of a fundamental issue for the resumption of the operation in the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ): The south Korean authorities in a statement of a spokesman for the Unification Ministry said that it is "very regretful" that the north declined the dialogue offer and shifted the responsibility and the "north is entirely to blame" for the suspension of the operation in the KIZ and the lack of the south-north consultation…."
"…The South Korean authorities are busy making excuses following the publication of the DPRK's magnanimous measure over the KIZ issue. Had they responded to the DPRK's offer, the KIZ would not have reached such a phase as now, to say nothing of the phase of taking out raw materials and products."
"But they have resorted to a sleight of hand, concealing their sinister design. This resulted in the huge damage to the innocent South Korean businessmen."
"The South Korean authorities claim to have deep interest in the livelihood of the businessmen. But as was proved by a recent statement, they kept silence about the normalization of the operation in the KIZ and touched only on the issue of taking out raw materials and products."
"This proves that they are not pleased with the resumption of the operation in the KIZ. What is more urgent than the taking out of the products is whether to keep or break the KIZ."
"This is an issue on which hinges the living of the South Korean businessmen and the future of the north-south relations. What the South Koreans truly want today is the normalization of the operation in the KIZ rather than the taking out of the products from the KIZ."
"Now is the time for the South Korean authorities to state before the public whether it has intent to fundamentally settle the KIZ issue or not."
"They should not try to distort the essence of the issue and deceive the public but clarify its stand on this issue. Their attitude will affect the DPRK's decision."
Comment: This statement is a clarification. NightWatch added the emphasis to the text.
The North's reply to the South's offer of talks was not a rejection, but a counteroffer to discuss normalization of the KIZ, rather than removal of items. The South and many international news organizations misinterpreted it. This statement repeats the offer to talk about normalizing Kaesong operations.
The South needs to improve its perspicacity in reading the North. It has an opportunity to respond to the North's counteroffer. The significance is that the future of Kaesong remains open for discussion.
China-North Korea: Xinhua published the following recap of the daily foreign ministry press briefing by spokesman Hong Lei on Monday. Concerning South Korean reports about North Korean missile firings over the weekend, Hong said, "'China has noted related reports and the reactions that followed.'"
"Maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula conforms with the aspirations of the people in the region and is in the common interest of all concerned parties."
"Hong called on all sides to ease tensions, improve relations and solve problems through dialogue in order to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."
"A report by a UN panel of experts said increasingly tough financial sanctions have significantly delayed the expansion of Pyongyang's nuclear program, according to Reuters."
"Responding to a question regarding the report, Hong said, 'China has always stood for dialogue and consultation in promoting denuclearization and maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula.'"
"Relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council should be implemented strictly, he said, adding that as a permanent member of the UNSC, China has performed its duties faithfully in this regard."
Comment: China has not softened its support for the UN sanctions it approved. The significance is that it shows China remains displeased with North Korean leadership behavior.
For the record. A Chinese businesswoman charged with defrauding investors has been sentenced to death, AP reported 20 May, citing a court in Wenzhou. The businesswoman was convicted of illegal fundraising for collecting 640 million yuan ($104 million) from investors and promising them high returns and low risks, a statement by the court said, adding that her scheme collapsed in October 2011 and that 428 million yuan could not be recovered.
Comment: Big investment fraud is a capital offense in China.
Iraq: Over the weekend through Monday, bombing and gunfire attacks killed 217 people and injured at least 283. Nine attacks occurred in separate neighborhoods of Baghdad and 16 other cities on Monday, resulting 133 killed and 283 injured.
Comment: Since 15 May, official sources reported 389 people killed and at least 424 wounded in the sectarian warfare.
Syria: Syrian troops supported by Hizballah soldiers reached the center of al-Qusayr on 19 May in the ongoing government offensive to recover the city which has been in opposition rebel control.
About 30 Hizballah fighters and 20 Syrian soldiers and militiamen died in the fighting. The opposition said Syrian and Hizballah forces killed 52 people and wounded hundreds of civilians. The government forces claim to control about 60% of the town for the first time in months.
Comment: Rebel control of the town meant that rebels could use northern Lebanon for safe haven and for supplying Homs, which is a governate capital just 35 kms to the northeast. Loss of al-Qusayr would be a significant tactical setback for the rebels.
For Hizballah, the casualty report is the first open acknowledgment that its militia is fighting in support of the Syrian army, as announced by Hasan Nasrallah on 9 May. The military support is not just lip-service and it appears to be making a difference in this offensive.
Syria-Israel: Satellite images reportedly show that Syria has deployed surface-to-surface Tishreen missiles in preparation for a strike on Israel, should Israel launch another attack on Syrian territory, The Sunday Times reported 19 May. An Israeli official said the Syrian regime would face crippling consequences if it strikes Israel.
Comment: The missiles are a Syrian variant of the Iranian designed Fateh-110. It has a range of 250km and carries a 450kg warhead.
President al Asad must at least make a show of defiance against Israeli air strikes. The threat of a wider conflict has increased slightly. Syria probably would not attack Israel unless the Syrians and the Iranians calculated they needed to try to convert the Syrian uprising into an Arab and Muslim war against Israel in order for the Syrian government to survive.
Recent Syrian military success reduces pressure to move in that direction, but the next escalation step is Israel's.
Egypt: President Mursi on 19 May rejected any dialogue with the gunmen who kidnapped seven Egyptian soldiers in Sinai after the soldiers appeared in an online video urging their release. The video, posted on YouTube on 19 May, showed seven blindfolded young men who identified themselves as the kidnapped soldiers; they mentioned their names, units and ages. One of the hostages said the kidnappers demanded the release of some "Sinai political prisoners.
The Egyptian army sent tanks to the Sinai Peninsula in response to the incident. Hamas closed the tunnels that lead from Sinai to the Gaza Strip during the standoff.
Comment: The Sinai bedouin have multiple grievances against the government in Cairo, including political and economic disenfranchisement. These conditions have led to the formation of armed groups who are engaged in a low level rebellion against the government that looks mostly like criminal behavior.
A more serious security incident in Sinai last summer enabled Mursi to sack Field Marshal Tantawi and other senior generals from the Mubarak era for dereliction of duty. This time he owns the problem and is responding to it the way Mubarak would have.
Tunisia: Strict-observance Islamists, known as Salafists, clashed with police in Kairouan (also known as Kirwan) on 19 May in northeastern Tunisia. Security forces prevented the country's main Salafist group from holding its banned annual congress. Protesters threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas.
Police also arrested about 200 members of the Ansar al-Sharia Islamist group in weekend clashes, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said in a statement on 20 May.
Comment: Kairouan is the cultural and religious center of Islam in Tunisia. Government action to prevent the annual congress is part of the ongoing campaign by security forces to control jihadists.
The jihadists and Salafists are not strong enough to threaten the government, but they have used terror tactics and intimidation to expand their influence and disrupt internal security in some towns.
The government campaign could backfire, but for now it seems to be succeeding and is backed by widespread popular pressure for improved security conditions.
Nigeria: Update. Nigerian security forces have retaken control of five areas in the country's northeast that had been seized by the Boko Haram Islamist militants, according to a Defense Ministry statement on 20 May. The military claims it has captured 200 Boko Haram fighters in the past week, including 120 on the 20th.
Mali: Touareg separatists clashed with local gunmen in northern Mail over the weekend. The Touareg group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad said Islamist militants attacked its forces in Anefif in northeastern Mali on 17 May 17 and fighting continued to the next morning. Two Touaregs and at least seven Islamist fighters have been reported killed so far.
Comment: Earlier this year the Islamist militants betrayed the Touaregs who initially supported the brief Islamist rebellion against the government in Bamako. The Islamists remain a threat, but the Touaregs apparently are on their guard.
The Touareg resistance against the Islamists fighters, whose affiliation has not been reported, is a benefit for the Malian government and for the French and African forces. However, it does not signify loyalty to Bamako. Lack of progress in meeting Touareg economic and political grievances remains part of the unsettled business between northern and southern Mali that fueled the Islamist attempt at secession in the first place.
End of NightWatch for 20 May.
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