North Korea-South Korea: In the past five days, North Korean media have published three messages that appeal to South Korea to improve ties. The first was the National Defense Commission's statement of three practical principles on 16 January.
The second was a collection of commentaries, published on 18 January, urging the South to not reject the National Defense Commission's proposal. The third was an article in the party daily on 20 January which urged that mending north-south relations is an urgent requirement for national reunification.
Comment: Some South Korean and international media are calling this the winter peace offensive. Nothing in the North's overture binds the North to anything. The burden for improving relations is always on South Korea. While the terms are opening positions that the South already has rejected, they imply that reunification might be obtained peacefully. That is enough to open a dialogue,
Old hands in strategic intelligence warning will recall a basic lesson of crises since before World War II is that a peace offensive often precedes an episode of shooting by a variable amount of time. Peace overtures also are used to camouflage problems in other areas and hide vulnerabilities.
South Korean President Park wisely ordered increased readiness on all borders. The South's forces must maintain that readiness through early April.
North Korea-China: A South Korean news service reported that on 12 January, Kim Jong Un told the military cadres that "the DPRK-China border is a front line before being a border" and gave orders to reinforce border security.
In compliance with this order, supposedly the military formations in the three provinces that border China moved northwards towards the China border, instead of facing south. Those forces include the 8th Army Corps, based in North Pyongan Province which guards the western part of the border; major combat elements of the 12thArmy Corps based in Yanggang Province in the central border region; and the 9thArmy Corps based in North Hamgyong Province with covers the eastern part of the China border.
According to the news service, the order to consider the China border a front line was a reaction to a large Chinese military exercise in Shenyang Province on the borders of North Korea. The Chinese exercise occurred in the first week of January and involved some 100,000 Chinese soldiers.
Comment: Other news sources have reported the Chinese exercise. The North Korean reaction is not confirmed. It also would not be much of a surprise. Under the influence of Chang Sung-taek, China's influence was expanding slowly in North Korea, spurred by advice and investment. His death might have sparked concern about stability in North Korea that justified special training for a variety of military contingencies along the border.
All the Kims have despised the Chinese, despite China's role in the Korean War. The Chinese consider the Kim's an embarrassment and a retreat from communist theory. Dynastic succession is counter-revolutionary by definition.
The Chinese exercises suggest concern about the stability of the Korean border region. Under the mutual friendship treaty, China does not require a North Korean invitation to invade in the event the North becomes unstable.
North Korean paranoia about a Chinese invasion is such that Kim, on the advice of his marshals and generals, might order increased defensive measures.
Problems with China would help explain the North's somewhat conciliatory overtures to South Korea. The North Koreans cannot fight a two-front war. The leadership apparently judges the South Korean front line is the easier to stabilize through diplomacy at this time while it assesses the potential threat from China.
North Korea has become even more a bastion state in the aftermath of Chang's execution.
Iran: For the record. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report passed to member states that Iran "has ceased enriching uranium above five percent" fissile purity at the Natanz and Fordo facilities. The report also said that Iran was also converting its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium into uranium oxide, a diluted form.
It added that Iran "is not conducting any further advances to its activities" at Natanz, Fordo or the heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. Iran "is continuing to construct" a plant for the conversion of low-enriched uranium needed to ensure that its reserve of this material does not grow during the next half-year, the IAEA report said.
"It's all fine, all their requirements have been fulfilled," one diplomat told the press. A second said: "It is promising, although there is a lot of work to do" over the next six months. Under the terms of the 24 November agreement, Iran has pledged to limit enrichment to low purities for a period of six months, convert its medium-enriched uranium and not make further advances at its nuclear facilities.
The IAEA also will be given additional inspection rights, including daily visits to Natanz and Fordo and access to centrifuge workshops. In exchange Western powers will loosen crippling sanctions in a package worth between $6-7 billion, including $4.2 billion in frozen overseas foreign exchange assets in eight instalments starting 1 February.
Comment: On the first day the agreement becomes effective, Iran has done what it has agreed to do. None of this means Iran has taken steps to dismantle its nuclear program. On the contrary, it means the West has accepted that Iran has significant nuclear technological capabilities about which the West can do very little, but must pay handsomely for minor interruptions.
Syria: Peace talks are scheduled to begin in Geneva this week. Much news coverage reported the UN's invitation to Iran to attend and the UN's revocation of the invitation. The most serious issue is the composition of the Syrian opposition's delegation.
The most powerful groups, the Islamic Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria refuse to participate. The Islamic Front rejected the upcoming Syrian peace talks in Geneva, which are set to begin on 22 January.
Comment: The US insisted that Iran must be disinvited, which is odd because Iran has invested soldiers and treasure to support its interests in Syria, far more than the US has invested. One of the US roles is to sponsor an opposition group that has no significant support inside Syria. This is close to farce.
One implication of the talks is their implicit acceptance that the rebellion has failed to unseat the Ba'athists in Damascus. That makes the talks a face-saving mechanism for the US to back out without much humiliation. The Russians are giving the US a chance to save face in exchange for bowing to Russian dominance in Syria.
The Islamic fundamentalists are staying true to their principle that there can be no peace with the Asad government. They are the most powerful fighting groups in Syria. That means that whatever group goes to Geneva is not representative of the opposition; has no authority to speak for the Islamists and is a straw man delegation that cannot deliver on any promises it makes.
The talks might produce a ceasefire agreement or framework, but there will be no ceasefire because the jihadists will ignore it.
Finally, if the premise of the Geneva talks is that all interested parties should participate, the exclusion or the Iranians ensures the talks serve no point except to recognize the legitimacy of the Asad government.
Egypt: For the record. The new constitution passed with 98.1 percent of the vote in the 17 and 18 January referendum, according to the election committee.
Comment: The overwhelming majority means that the opponents boycotted. The problem with boycotts is they disenfranchise the opposition and distort the significance of popular votes. This referendum result means than about 36% of Egyptians favor the new secular constitution.
The government will implement its program based on this result. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the vast majority of Egyptians oppose the new constitutional order or do not care or know enough to vote.
South Sudan: South Sudan troops recaptured the town of Bor on 18 January, "defeating more than 15,000 rebels in the process," an army spokesman said at a news conference. Government soldiers also have retaken Malakal, President Salva Kiir said on 20 January.
Comment: If the government claims are accurate, the rebellion should be defeated. Peace talks would seem to be pointless. That is probably not the case.
There seems to be no large lessons to take from this uprising. The small and obvious lessons are that phenomenon of violent tribalism in support of a personality cult remains alive and well in Africa, including Arab and sub-Saharan Africa. The 1960s were filled with this kind of violence in Africa. Tribal bloodletting appears to be a rite of passage towards more stable government.
End of NightWatch
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