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The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

North Korea: According to information relayed by defector sources, the health of Kim Kyong-hui -- the aunt of Kim Jong Un -- has deteriorated because of the execution of her husband, Chang Sung-taek. She was unable to attend the memorial event for the second anniversary of the General's passing because of health problems. She reportedly has travelled overseas to receive treatment.

The sources said her health wasn't great as it was and she suffered a heart attack when her husband was executed by firing squad.

Comment: With Kim Kyong-hui's departure, the closest relatives of the late Kim Chong-il have been removed as advisors and counselors to Kim Jong Un. The North Korean government contains many cousins and distant relatives of Kim Jong Un. Execution of a family member is a serious cultural transgression that reportedly has unhinged many people because of its ruthlessness, according to defector sources.

At a minimum, the young Kim has shown he is no respecter of family. That is a serious liability in a culturally Confucian society. Kim Jong Un is being manipulated to follow the same path his father followed, relying on soldiers. Everybody but possibly the senior military officers despised Kim Chong-il. Kim Chong-il realized how much he had been manipulated only in the last year of his life, based on the changes he tried.

North Korea-South Korea: For the record. North and South Korean delegates held a fourth meeting at Kaesong to complete the normalization program for the joint industrial complex.

Correction: In November 2010 North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island (Y-P Do), not Baengnyong Island (P-Y Do). The current threat is against P-Y Do. Both are offshore islands on which South Korean Marines are stationed. Special thanks to a Brilliant and careful Reader for the correction.

Burma-North Korea-US: The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a Burmese military officer and three Burmese enterprises. They have been added to the Specially Designated National List (SDNL) for engaging in weapons trade with North Korea.

Representatives from Excellence Mineral Manufacturing Co., Ltd., and Soe Min Htaeik Co. recently met with North Korean authorities to facilitate the import of military supplies for use in North Korea's weapons programs.

A third company, Asia Metal Company Limited, is thought to have constructed factory facilities for use by the Myanmar (Burma) Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI). Press sources estimate that some thirty North Korean nationals are currently employed on the site.

Comment: The US has normalized its relations with Burma this year because of political reforms. However, apparently the Burmese have not abandoned their contacts with North Korea that help the North avoid sanctions.

The US Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence announced on the 17th that, "The revenues from these continuing military sales directly support North Korea's illicit activities. We will continue to target this activity in Burma, and the region, as we work with our international partners to shut down North Korea's dangerous and destabilizing weapons proliferation."

Syria:Update. The most powerful coalition of Syrian rebels, the newly formed Islamic Front, has rejected talks with US officials just days after seizing control of warehouses filled with American military equipment that was sent to support more secular rival rebel groups.

Comment: Various news outlets reported that the US was considering holding talks with Islamists in order to remove the Ba'athist government in Damascus. This possible change in US policy was the result of the collapse of non-Islamist opposition forces.

The rejection by the Islamic Front is probably their opening, vice final, position. They might be soliciting a higher bid from the US and the publicity from US diplomats asking to negotiate terms with Islamic terrorists.

South Sudan: Rebel gunmen, reportedly from the Nuer ethnic group, attacked a UN peacekeeping base in Akobo, Jonglei State on 19 December. The attackers were targeting members of the Dinka tribe, which is the largest ethnic group in South Sudan. Two Indian peacekeepers were killed.

"The government has lost control of Jonglei state to the forces of Colonel Machar (a former vice president of South Sudan) and his group," government representative Ateny Wek Ateny told the press. The state capital of Bor is under rebel control and has been subject to artillery shelling, according to its mayor.

The US evacuated 120 US employees and others from South Sudan on Wednesday because of continuing violence. The US Embassy employees, foreign diplomats and US citizens, were flown to Kenya.

A State Department spokesperson said the US continues to urge Americans to leave South Sudan and will work to help arrange transportation for them.

Note: South Sudan became independent of Sudan in July 2011. It is a federal republic of ten states, one of which is Jonglei, the largest state in the republic and borders Ethiopia. Bor is the state capital. Akobo is on the border of Ethiopia.

South Sudan is one of the poorest nations on earth, measured by per capita gross domestic product. It contains significant crude oil deposits in the north. As yet that potential wealth is not fully exploitable because of continuous political instability, the lack of infrastructure and persistent low level ethnic violence.

Background and comments: South Sudan has been in turmoil since independence in 2011. Threats have included attacks by militias backed by the Sudanese government in Khartoum and local tribal militias who oppose President Salva Kiir.

President Salva Kiir, who is from the Dinka tribe, has blamed the violence on a group of soldiers who support Riek Machar, a Nuer, which is the second largest tribe after and is related to the Dinka. Kiir dismissed Machar as vice president last July.

The president accused Machar's followers of trying to take power by force on Sunday night in a coup attempt, which Machar denies. Other important political groups also have said there was no coup attempt.

The situation is not clear beyond that Kiir remains in office in Juba; that at least 500 people have died in firefights in Juba since Sunday; and that rebels now control Bor. Most of those killed were soldiers, according to media accounts. Machar demands that Kiir step down. The extent of Machar's support beyond some Nuer soldiers is not known. Nor is his political program, if he has one.

The Nuer are cattle herders and animists who, by reputation, tend to keep to themselves. They have no higher tribal organization and have not displayed much interest in national politics until recently. Thus the issues appear to be personal rather than ideological or based on an agenda.

The capture of the state capital Bor creates a potentially escalating scenario for a larger tribal conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer, which is what the UN has cited as a concern. The numbers of fighters on either side is not known. At this time, this looks like a factional fight more than the prelude to a civil war. Nevertheless, the prospects for more killings are very high.

The US announced it is sending 45 combat soldiers to Juba to protect the American community. That might be enough to help settle the situation in Juba. The UN and African statesmen have another peacemaking challenge.

End of NightWatch


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