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NightWatch 20150123

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For the night of 23 January 2015

North Korea: On 23 January, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a statement by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea on resolving North-South issues. Most of the statement concerns issues connected to reuniting separated families and why South Korea is to blame for the lack of progress.

Comment: A central theme in this statement is the damage done by the sanctions that the South Korean government imposed and has maintained since 24 May 2010; the so-called 24 May measures. These measures retaliated for North Korea's sinking of the South Korean patrol ship, Cheonan, on 26 March 2010, killing 46 sailors.

The 24 May measures include a near total suspension of trade, which had reached nearly $2 billion a year; denial of permission for North Korean merchant ships to transit sea lanes in South Korean waters; resumption of anti-North Korean propaganda broadcasts by loudspeakers along the Demilitarized Zone and the suspension of other exchanges.

The other exchanges include joint excavations of historical relics, academic symposiums, social and cultural exchanges, and Mt. Ku'mgang tours, according to the North Koreans..

Key condition. The key paragraphs in the statement contain the primary condition for resuming low-level contacts.

"If the South Korean government is sincerely interested in humanitarian issues, it should first remove the blocking measures that were imposed for the purpose of confrontation…."

"If the South Korean authorities truly have the will to resolve the issues of North-South relations, including the reunion of separated families and relatives, they should show it with practical actions from a proper stance toward our just proposals instead of resorting to cheap tricks to misrepresent the essence of the current situation and deceive public sentiment."

Comment: The North and South are talking to each other, conducting diplomacy in public. The significance of this statement is that the condition for resuming low level is different from that for senior level talks. Senior level talks required the end of annual Allied military training. That means the North has separated the various negotiations into different packages.

This statement represents limited progress because the North is continuing the public exchanges. Of course, it is also propaganda.

An important aspect of this statement, which is actually a counter-proposal, is that it exclusively deals with inter-Korean issues. Progress on the issues cited could occur without Allied involvement. This is another tactic to destroy Allied unity in dealing with North Korea.

The South remains open to inter-Korean talks, but is unwilling to cede the initiative to North Korea or to comply with its terms. The underlying issues for North Korea are always about money. All the issues listed mean hard currency for North Korea. For South Korea the issues are primarily soft - humanitarian, cultural and family.

In using public diplomacy, the North is continuing its program of bypassing the South Korean government by appealing to the sympathies of the South Korean populace, which is a primary target of today's statement. The reason South Korean leaders will reject this statement is that it contains no binding promise of reciprocal action by North Korea. Nevertheless, the two Koreas are talking to each other and that means the security situation is stable for now.

Thailand: Update. On 23 January, the National Legislative Assembly voted to impeach former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra for her role in overseeing a government rice subsidy program that lost billions of dollars. Impeachment requires a three-fifths vote of the 220 members of the Assembly. One hundred ninety members voted for impeachment. The impeachment vote means Yingluck will be banned from politics for five years.

In a separate action, the attorney general's office announced separate plans to indict Yingluck on criminal charges for negligence related to losses and alleged corruption in the rice program. No date has been set for the formal indictment. If convicted, Yingluck could face 10 years in prison.

Comment: The army-appointed National Legislative Assembly went through the motions of a legal procedure, but the outcome was never in doubt because the parliament is appointed by the military government. The members are from the military or are political opponents of the Shinawatra political family.

The Assembly has no constitutional basis of legitimacy. The army suspended the old constitution last May and a new constitution is still in draft. Thailand remains under martial law. General Prayuth's hand-picked Assembly named him the prime minister when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 60.

Since the coup last May, it has been clear that the Bangkok political class plus members of the royal family and the army wanted the Shinawatra family permanently purged. Yingluk most likely will end up in exile with her brother; which is a longstanding Thai political tradition for handling troublesome political figures.

The dilemma the military government continues to avoid is that Yingluk, or her brother Thaksin, most likely would be elected to office again in a fair election. Outside Bangkok and among the rural poor, the Shinawatras and their populist political program remain hugely popular. That explains the absence of movement to return Thailand to a democracy.

No demonstrations have been reported, but security forces will remain on alert, particularly in the north and northeast.

Saudi Arabia: King Salman confirmed that Prince Muqrin is the Crown Prince and that Salman's nephew Prince Mohammad bin Nayef is the second in line. He promised continuity of policies.

Comment: Knowledgeable news sources reported that Salman is in poor health and suffers from dementia. An early set of priorities will be determining how issues are framed, by whom, and how decisions are actually made.

Ukraine: Eastern Ukrainian rebel forces began an offensive on 23 January to push Ukrainian government forces out of artillery range of Donetsk. Donetsk People's Republic Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko said his forces would push the front line back to the borders of Donetsk region. He also said that his regime will not agree to any more ceasefire talks.

The rebel Defense Ministry said 24 rebel troops had been killed and 30 wounded in the latest fighting. It said it was, "the heaviest losses in our ranks" in a 24-hour period.

Comment: Today's actions and statements indicate several things. First, the diplomatic interlude has ended. It served to cover a significant reinforcement of the eastern Ukrainian rebels from Russia. Second, the Ukrainian claims about new equipment and support from Russia last week appear to be accurate.

The rebels almost lost control of Donetsk airport last week. Today the remaining Ukrainian soldiers have withdrawn from the airport after the breakout offensive by Kyiv's forces failed. The rebel forces are on the offensive. Zakharchenko claimed his forces have sufficient capability to attack on three fronts simultaneously.

Third, it is not clear what Zakharchenko meant about pushing to the borders of the Donetsk region. One analyst suggested he is boasting.

The rebels hold about two-thirds of the Donetsk Oblast. If Zakharchenko meant the entire Oblast by his reference to "the Donetsk region," a significant escalation of the conflict has begun.

The Russians have not yet commented, but Zakharchenko's statements do not square with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's exertions to find a diplomatic solution based on the Minsk accords of last September. The Russian reaction to the rebel offensive will indicate whether the Russian position remains as Lavrov presented it in Berlin.

End of NightWatch for 23 January.

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