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NightWatch 20131022

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NightWatch

For the night of 21 October 2013

North Korea-South Korea: North Korea on Monday warned of 'merciless firing' against the South if it goes ahead with a reported plan to develop shells to carry anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border. "This is another intolerable challenge to the DPRK (North Korea)," the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by the North's official news agency, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

"We will never tolerate the foolish acts of the puppet warmongers but wipe out the provokers with merciless firing. We will deal a telling blow at the (South Korean) army to make it pay a very high price for its foolish provocation as it is keen on staging 'psychological warfare against the North' in alignment with human scum."

The South's Joong-Ang Ilbo newspaper reported last week that South Korean troops were developing non-explosive hollow shells capable of carrying such leaflets deep into North Korean territory.

Comment: The South Korean government has not confirmed the newspaper story. Both sides indulge in propaganda battles, but prevailing winds seasonally appear to favor blowing anti-Kim propaganda balloons northward. North Korean defectors to South Korea and supporting groups - the so-called "human scum" mentioned above - often take the lead in the cross-border leaflet spreading effort.

The significance of the North's outburst is the incongruity of merciless firing in retaliation for non-explosive rounds that shoot paper, as in a circus act. The North's anti-South Korea propaganda is going hyper again.

Update on Kaesong. Progress towards internationalizing the industrial complex in cooperation with South Korea remains frozen. Meanwhile the North apparently is pushing ahead its programs to develop industrial parks, modeled on Kaesong, in other provinces but with South Korean investment.

Comment: The opening of a new swimming park, work at the ski resort and the North's pressure to reopen the Mount Kumgang resort all point to a strategic decision to remake the image of North Korea as a magnet for tourists. Not all the kinks - such as building a reliable utilities infrastructure and security sequestration of foreign tourists from North Koreans - appear to have been thought through, much less worked out. It is not clear, moreover, that the North has performed market studies to determine whether North Korea's vision of a tourism mecca could achieve a reasonable return on investment.

More importantly the idea that North Korea can remake itself as a fun-loving playground for rich people is incongruent with 60 years of hostility to foreigners. Foreign attitudes towards the North are not likely to change quickly. The energy and investment also seems misplaced relative to the stark natural beauty and attractiveness of many places in North Korea that could be made tourist attractions much less expensively.

China-North Korea-Iran: South Korean and Japanese press services reported that Chinese authorities are holding two Iranian tankers of crude oil bound for North Korea until the Pyongyang government pays $2 million in storage and other fees.

China, North Korea and South Korea have made no comment. Iran's oil minister denied that China has seized any of its tankers.

Comment: The story is strange because one version says that at least one tanker has been held since April. Other reports repeat without proof that in September 2012 North Korea reached a barter agreement with Iran to trade mineral ores for 500,000 tons of Iranian crude. The crude was to be delivered to a Chinese refinery and then shipped to North Korea.

In the 1980's North Korea supplemented imports of Chinese crude with two or three tanker loads per year from Libya and Iran, totaling between 1.5 and 2 million tons. The arrangement was never to reduce reliance on Chinese crude, which is impossible for all practical purpose, but to obtain distillates that the North cannot produce at its two refineries, such as fuel for high performance jet aircraft.

A barter arrangement between North Korea and China is not implausible. Nor is the arrangement for refining the oil. In the 1990's North Korea occasionally would arrange to have a Russian refinery in the Far East refine a tanker load of crude and ship the finished product back to North Korea, minus a commission in kind as payment to the refinery. The most believable element of the story is that the North would try to stiff the Chinese port authorities by not paying storage and other port-related fees

Iran-Russia: The Commander in Chief of the Russian Air Force completed a two-day visit to Iran on 21 October, apparently to inspect Iranian air defenses and talk with the commanders of the Iranian air force and the Revolutionary Guard Corps air force.

No deals were announced. However, Brigadier General Farzad Esma'ili, commander of Iran's Khatam ol-Anbiya Air Defense Base, told Iran's Fars News Agency that Iran will import "the S-300 missile system or a similar one." Speaking at a news conference after talks with Russian Air Force Commander-in-Chief Bondarev, Esma'ili contended that "S-300s are a defense system and sanctions do not apply to them," adding that "the Russians agree with that."

Comment: The timing of this visit suggests a Russian and Iranian response to the latest arms sales initiative between the US and its regional allies. It occurred just five days after the US informed Congress last week its agreement to sell $10.8 billion in advanced stand-off land attack missiles and other advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The absence of details and the statement by the Iranian Brigadier seem to indicate it was put together hurriedly to demonstrate solidarity and for chest thumping.

Syria-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW): Update. Chemical weapons inspectors in Syria have visited 17 of the more than 20 chemical-weapons sites disclosed by the Syrian government. They destroyed equipment used in making chemical weapons at 13 sites. Although Syrian officials have identified 20 sites, OPCW officials said that their teams intend to visit more than 20 sites.

Comment: The initial visit phase of the disposal plan is to be completed by 1 November. The ability to meet that deadline will depend on security conditions near the remaining sites. The OPCW teams appear to have completed their inspection of the easily accessible sites.

Egypt: A car bomb exploded on Saturday, 19 October, near an Egyptian army intelligence building in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, wounding at least six soldiers, security sources said. A group called Ansar Jerusalem claimed credit for the attack.

Comment: This appears to be the first car bomb attack in an Egyptian city west of the Suez Canal since the ouster of Mursi. Car bombings are used in attacks in Sinai several times a month. Plus, militants have tried before to sneak car bombers across the Canal at Ismailiya. For example, on 1 October Egyptian security forces stopped three car bomb suspects in Ismailiya.

With this bombing, two terrorist weapons have now been introduced to anti-government militants in cities west of the Suez. The other was the rocket-propelled grenade. In the first week of October, anti-government militants used rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) to damage a satellite radio dish. That was the first time RPGs had been used outside of Sinai.

The most likely and obvious source of training and weapons is the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. What this suggests is that a meaner and better armed form of anti-government resistance is emerging west of the Suez. It already exists in Sinai, east of the Suez.

End of NightWatch for 21 October.

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