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

North Korea: North Korea's cabinet will tighten its grip on the economy in the aftermath of Chang Sung-taek's execution, a senior official said Friday. He said that Chang's control of certain sectors of the economy weakened the country's finances.

Comment: The statement sounds disingenuous because the North Korean economy has never been under the control of the cabinet, which is a government, not a Party, organization. It is not clear just what this announcement signifies in practice, if anything because Party decisions govern North Korean economics.

This announcement looks like it is for international consumption, reinforcing the theme of a return to apparent normality. However, Readers should understand that cabinet control of anything is abnormal in North Korea because the cabinet's job is to execute party decisions and keep things working.

Concerning economics, without private side deals arranged by old boy networks and slush funds, the Kim family and its retainers could not enjoy their self-indulgent, extravagant life style.

Thailand: The Royal Thai Army chief, General Prayuth, on Friday issued his strongest call yet for the nation's political rivals to overcome their divisions and restore calm. He also refused to rule out the possibility of a military coup as long as the political conflict threatens to tear the country apart.

General Prayuth made the comments one day after protesters tried to stop February elections and clashed with police in Bangkok, resulting in two dead and more than 140 injured.

Comment: The practical rule of thumb is that the army does not mention the word coup without the backing of the King. That means the King or his delegate has reached the limits of tolerance for the political violence and demonstrations. That is the message behind the general's statement.

The curious aspect of this is that the Royal family pretty much despises the family of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and is suspicious of their populist support. If there is a military intervention, Prime Minister Yingluck would be the second Shinawatra prime minster to be overthrown. Her brother Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by a military coup in 2006.

Iran: The head of Iran's atomic energy agency said Iran is building a new generation of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, but needs further tests before they can be mass-produced.

Comment: Iran understands that US policy has shifted from a total ban on nuclear development to containment. The US has accepted Iran's right to enrich uranium, which Iran consistently has said is not negotiable. The disagreements are not about the right, but about the extent of enrichment.

The significance of today's statement is that it betrays Iran's intention to resume enrichment after the six month temporary suspension agreement expires.

Turkey: For the record. An Istanbul prosecutor who was overseeing the extensive corruption investigation of Prime Minister Erdogan's inner circle was removed from the case on Thursday. The prosecutor, Muammer Akkas, issued a condemnation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, accusing it of interfering with the judiciary and preventing him from carrying out his work.

"Court orders have not been carried out and there has been open pressure on the judicial process from both the chief prosecutor's office and from the police force, which is supposed to carry out the decisions of the courts," Muammer Akkas said in a Thursday statement.

Comment: Prosecutors are trained attorneys who are full time employees of the Ministry of Justice. They function as investigating magistrates as well as prosecutors at trial and are not allowed to be members of bar associations or other legal professional organizations. Thus the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors in the Ministry of Justice can transfer, promote or reassign a prosecutor.

Akkas was reassigned for improper leaks to the press and mishandling the investigation. The facts are that Akkas' investigation embarrassed Erdogan and resulted in his dismissal. Powers are never fully separated in any system.

Syria: The head of Russia's National Security Council said, "We will not be able to hold the conference within the initially given time frame." National Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev made the statement in an interview with the press in reference to the Syrian peace conference, called Geneva 2. He said, "Progress is slow."

On November 25, the UN set 22 January 2014, as the date for the Geneva 2 talks.

Comment: Patrushev is the first and only senior official from any state to suggest the conference on Syria might need to be postponed. His mention of slow progress refers to the inability of the West to organize a unified delegation that can speak authoritatively for the opposition. Patrushev appears to be taunting the West rather than expressing Russian policy, at least for now.

Egypt: Update. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that security forces arrested on 27 December 265 members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in some Egyptian governorates. The ministry stressed all legal procedures will be taken against the arrested.

Three people were killed during clashes in Cairo, Al-Minya (south of Cairo) and Damietta (north of Cairo) governorates. Separately, three security officials, including a deputy police chief, were shot during Friday clashes.

Comment: This is just another phase in the suppression of the Brotherhood.

South Sudan: Update. South Sudan's government agreed Friday at a meeting of East African leaders to end hostilities against rebels accused of trying to overthrow the young country, but the cease-fire was quickly thrown into doubt because Machar, the head of the rebellion, was not invited.

Comment: An army spokesman suggested the fighting could go on "despite the announcement by politicians in a faraway capital." Government forces continued their offensive on the 27th to rout the rebels in the oil-rich state of Unity and in other nearby areas.

Central African Republic: Update. Two more African Union peacekeepers were killed overnight in the Central African Republic, officials said on 27 December, bringing to 11 the number of peacekeepers killed in less than a month. The two officers from the Republic of Congo were killed by unidentified assailants, African Union mission spokesman Eloi Yao told press.

Comment: The French do not appear to be leading the peacekeeping effort. There have been no reports in mainstream reporting about French operations, except to keep the airport open and functioning. As a result the peacekeeping operation looks undisciplined and ineffective.

End of NightWatch ###

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