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NightWatch 20131031

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For the night of 31 October 2013

South Korea-North Korea: Update. A 21-person delegation from the Republic of Korea's National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee paid a visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) yesterday, the first such trip since President Park entered office at the end of February. The delegation returned on schedule at 16:00 local time via the inter-Korean immigration office at Paju.

The delegation did not meet with North Korean government officials, as had been planned. Instead, they received a briefing on the current situation from KIC support center staff - which is manned by South Koreans -- and then met South Korean company representatives from four firms in the zone: JY Solutec (metallic molds and car parts), Samdeok Starfield (shoes), SK Apparel (undergarments), and Sinwon (clothing).

"Operations at the complex were at 80% before the shutdown, but the mass exit of buyers has reduced operations to around 30% of capacity. The two Koreas need to give the international community a sense of stability," Kim Hak Gwon, the head of JY Solutec, informed the group.

Comment: The positive news is that North Korea did not cancel the delegation's visit, which was agreed weeks ago. It reneged, however, on the commitment to hold joint meetings about internationalizing the complex and about infrastructure and communications issues.

Early in October North Korea veered sharply away from tactics of conciliation and cooperation with the South and adopted the harsher themes and language of last March when the country increased national readiness for war. Last week, the North's language softened somewhat and it adopted tactics that appeared more reasonable and cooperative.

This week, the North leaders again applied the brakes to conciliation and cooperation. In the North's scheme for constructing 14 development zones, Kaesong is considered a high-tech development zone and a model for the other zones. The Kim Jong Un regime wants to play down the role of South Korean firms and technology in its unilateral bid to attract international investment.

Pakistan: Update. Prime Minister Sharif said Thursday that talks with the Pakistani Taliban have started. He provided no details, however, on participants, venues or agendas. Sharif's comments came during a meeting in London with the British deputy prime minister and were released in a statement by the Pakistani High Commission.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, briefing Pakistani lawmakers Thursday, said details of the agenda and the location of government-Taliban talks are being finalized.

Comment: Sharif's assurances to his foreign audiences seem ahead of the facts told his domestic audiences. Talks are not yet taking place, mainly because the Pakistani Taliban have not agreed to them. That is the message of the Interior Minister.

Iraq-US: According to US media analysis, "Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is asking for more US help on his Washington visit this week, two years after Iraq soundly rejected a continuing US military presence. Cities such as Fallujah and Tel Afar, painfully wrested back from Al Qaeda by US forces during the war, are now in Al Qaida affiliates' hands, leaving Iraqi army soldiers largely confined to their barracks."

Comment: US media have tended to treat al-Maliki's visit to the US and his request for help as a bilateral set of issues. But there is another dimension to his appeal that relates to Iran and Syria. The people al-Maliki calls terrorists have ties to some of the strongest Syrian opposition fighting groups. Al-Maliki's request for military support pits US policy in Iraq directly against US policy in Syria and would benefit consolidation of Iranian interests. Neveretheless, security conditions in Iraq genuinely are deteriorating.

US policy in Iraq seeks to stabilize a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that has strong ties to Iran and is actively supporting the government in Syria. US policy in Syria seeks to overthrow a secular government in Damascus that is dominated by members of the Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shiism - and which also has strong ties to Iran, to al Maliki's government and to Lebanese Hizballah.

The dilemma for US strategists is that more support for al Maliki means weakening the Syrian opposition. Ultimately, the US would be supporting the consolidation of Iranian influence. That means the US would be supporting its enemy and its allies at the same time. Help for al-Maliki is help for Bashar al-Asad.

A Brilliant and extremely well-informed Reader queried why have the Iraqi Shiites not risen up to defend themselves? They have sent militia units to Damascus to defend the Asad regime, but seem helpless against the Sunni terrorist attacks.

Syria-Hizballah: Syrian opposition propaganda organs reported that Hizballah has deployed 15,000 fighters for an expected offensive on the mountainous al-Qalamun Mountains area north of Damascus. The Syrian regime also reportedly is building up its forces in the area, which is located between Damascus and Homs.

The Damascus-based Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade, a close Hizballah ally, said it will take part in the expected Qalamun battle as a response to a recent attack on its headquarters in the capital's Shiite district of Sayeda Zeinab. Abbas's brigade mainly constitutes Iraqi Shiite fighters.

Comment: Al Akhbar correspondents refuted the Syrian opposition propaganda in detail as an exaggeration to focus international attention so as to get support. While the opposition posits an imminent large battle for Qalamun, geography and facts suggest there will be no grand battle.

The region is a large mountainous zone that runs south-to-north from Damascus to Homs along the border with Lebanon. It contains many villages rather than a single focal point and target for attack, as at Qusayr in April 2013. Large -scale operations are not appropriate according to Syrian army sources.

Al Akhbar reported that it is too late in the year to begin a large operation. Winter weather usually impedes movement in the mountains.

Hizballah leaders reportedly said they do not intend to participate in operations in Qalamun unless they are needed to protect Shiite villagers in the Bekaa Valley, on the Lebanon side of the mountains.

The Syrians and their Iraqi allies do not deny that operations are continuous in western Syria to keep lines of communication open from Damascus to the Alawite heartland in northwestern Syria. They do deny that a grand battle is shaping up. They also report that the Ba'athist government in Damascus judges it has survived past the danger point. They reportedly think the military situation is going well for the government and have no need of losing men and resources in a large battle in mountain terrain.

Syria-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons: For the record. Syria has destroyed its known chemical weapons production and mixing facilities, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a document. The declaration came a day before the 1 November deadline.

Israel-Syria: Israeli forces executed attacks against Syrian air defense installations, evidently to prevent modern air defense equipment from reaching Hizballah. One of the attacks was against an air defense site in the northwestern Syrian port town of Latakia. This attack reportedly was executed by Israeli naval assets.

The second attack was executed against an air defense target near Damascus but Israeli combat aircraft.

The Associated Press quoted US officials who confirmed that Israel was responsible for the attacks, which they said targeted Russian missiles, without giving further details. The sites, one in the port city of Latakia and another in Damascus, allegedly contained surface to air missile systems said to be slated for delivery to Hizballah in Lebanon.

Comment: Israel is backing up with force its warning that it will not permit Hizballah to receive modern air defense weapons from Syria. That intention does not explain the bombardment by naval fire of the air defense site at Latakia, unless it was storing equipment for Hizballah.

End of NightWatch for 31 October.

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