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NightWatch 20091216

NightWatch

For the Night of 16 December 2009

North Korea: Chosen Ilbo reported that North Korea plans to ban foreigners from the country from 20 December until early February. A South Korean source said the North Korean Embassy in Beijing has stopped issuing visas for foreigners.

Agence France-Presse reported two divergent explanations for the extended closure. One is to provide a window of security for a future visit by Kim Chong-il to Beijing. Kim always travels by train so the primary route and spur lines must be secured and possibly improved.

The alternate explanation is that the public hostility to the currency reform is much worse than has been reported and unrest is more widespread.

Comment: In the NightWatch experience, a ban on foreigners has only occurred during semi-war alert conditions as a precaution in a crisis with the UN Command or during a major Allied military exercise; during an internal crisis, such as the revolt in 1995 by the now disbanded Sixth Army Corps; or to control an epidemic.

-- During semi-war alerts, the borders are closed to everyone and foreigners are expelled or restricted, but internal movement by Koreans is allowed.

-- During an internal crisis, the border is closed to foreigners and foreigners are expelled, but external activities by Koreans usually continue.

-- To prevent the spread of an epidemic, almost all internal movement ceases in addition to a ban on movements across the border. North Korea simply stops, except for public health officials.

The full extent of movement restrictions probably is not yet available. The limited information in the public domain points to an internal crisis. North Korean leaders would prefer to hide from foreign observation outbreaks of unrest in their people's paradise.

An upheaval in the leadership also would justify a ban on foreigners, but none has been reported by any open source.

Concerning the currency reform and exchange, sources in a South Korean-based NGO that operates in the North reported that prices soared in open air markets following the currency exchange, prompting the government to shut them down for three days. This currency reform has proven much more troublesome than the policy makers anticipated. It was supposed to have been completed by 6 December.

North Korea-France: The French government wants to establish with North Korea permanent cooperation in humanitarianism, culture and linguistics, while not formally establishing immediate diplomatic relations, French envoy for North Korea Jack Lang said 16 December as reported by Agence France-Presse. Lang said Paris awaits Pyongyang's response.

The French have a practice of probing for opportunities in Asia by using culture and linguistics, sometimes trying to poach on American interests. The French government operates many language schools and cultural centers in Southeast Asia for this purpose.

India-Kashmir: Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Maken told Parliament this week that about 700 militants are operating in the India's Jammu and Kashmir State. In his written statement, Maken said the militants appear to receive "every type of assistance including money and material from across the border," referring to Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir.

The significance of this figure is that it shows a reduction through 2009. The official number of militants reported in early 2009 was more than 800. The security situation inside Kashmir is usually managed by uniformed police, with occasional assistance from paramilitary police - an important benchmark of an improving security situation.

Pakistan: This week, news services have reported actions in multiple separate venues that indicate Pakistani leaders have reached the limits of their overt counter-terror cooperation with the US. They seem already to be preparing for the beginning of the US force drawdown from Afghanistan because 18 months is not a long time to rebuild strategic connections.

President Zardari has resisted President Obama's direct appeal for the rapid expansion of Pakistani counterinsurgency operations in tribal areas, according to the Washington Post today. In a letter to Obama, Zardari wrote that Pakistan will act against insurgents based on its own timeline and operational needs. He asked the United States to accelerate military assistance to Pakistani forces and to act more forcefully against Pakistan's historic enemy.

Yesterday the New York Times reported that senior Pakistani military officers and diplomats said Pakistan would not execute operations against the Haqqani network, which operates from North Waziristan. Haqqani's network is the most vicious of the anti-Afghan government insurgent groups and is considered responsible for most, if not all, sensational suicide bombings in Kabul, plus the ambush of the French forces last summer outside Kabul.

The Pakistanis said they are overextended, executing operations in their own national interest. The Times report said the real reason for Pakistan's position is a lack of faith in the US troop surge and a need to position itself for any regional adjustment that might start once the Americans begin to withdraw from Afghanistan

The Associated Press reported today that visas for U.S. diplomats and military service members have been held up by Pakistan; diplomats have been stopped repeatedly at checkpoints and American cars are searched in what appears to be a response to U.S. expansion of operations in Pakistan, said a senior U.S. diplomat. The official said the reaction is likely temporary and that the United States only intends to ask Pakistan to relent.

Other commentators have reported Pakistani intelligence is restoring/expanding its contacts with the Afghan Taliban. A senior politician associated with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the press today that Pakistan's Taliban problem would become much more manageable after US troops withdraw from Afghanistan. And Prime Minister Gilani again denounced US drone attacks.

Rightly or not, senior Pakistanis already have begun behaving they way they do when they expect the US to leave, which they contend is characteristic of US policy towards South Asia. Even Musharraf was reputed to consider the US an inconstant ally. For them, this is back to the future.

Politics. The Supreme Court today found unconstitutional Musharraf's National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that suspended prosecution cases for corruption and graft against more than 8,000 politicians and bureaucrats. They include the late Benazir Bhutto and President Zardari himself, plus the Defense and Interior Ministers and senior government advisors.

Speaking for a 17-member bench of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Chaudhry said, "The NRO is in conflict with the constitution." The Court also ordered restoration of all cases that had been suspended by Musharraf in October 2007, including those against President Zardari, one of which involves money laundering case in a Swiss court.

Zardari has immunity from prosecution while he remains in office, but can be impeached and removed by action of the national and provincial parliaments, whose members elect the President. Musharraf resigned in August 2008 under threat of impeachment. Many of the 8,000 beneficiaries from the NRO could face immediate arrest.

Opposition politicians and lawyers hailed the ruling as a landmark. "It is a defining moment for the judiciary," said Hafeez Pirzada, a former law minister and a leading constitutional lawyer.

The end of the amnesty was greeted tonight in Zardari's home province of Sindh with protests. Sporadic bursts of gunfire were reported in Karachi. The President's chief spokesman said that he would respect the court's decision.

Comment: There is no indication that Zardari intends to resign, but his ability to function effectively has been undermined. Zardari is a political lame duck and a liability.

For the Supreme Court to move so swiftly and boldly - essentially within a month of inviting petitions - a host of back channel communications, assurances and deals must be in place joining the Army, the Court and the leaders of the top political parties to ensure civil order. Chief Justice Chaudhry would not have acted without securing support.

While the ruling is a powerful move to restore the rule of law, it risks creating political uncertainty until parliament restores in full the executive powers of the Prime Minister.

The ruling is not a large step towards political normality, however, because even the groups backing the Chief Justice share few political values aside from wanting to rid the country of Zardari and his venal friends. As leader of the legal profession, the Chief Justice wants to ensure rule of law under all circumstances. The civilian politicians, especially Nawaz Sharif, want to ensure the Army never returns to power again. The Army reserves the right to overthrow the government to preserve the country, but not just now.

For all parties, this ruling gives them an iron-clad justification to resist outside pressure for greater security cooperation, while Pakistan gets its political house in order. NightWatch judges that effect is not an accident of timing.

NightWatch expects that Pakistani relations with almost all countries, except China, will become increasingly prickly in the next few months until after Zardari's future is settled.

Afghanistan: Today a media outlet for the Afghan Taliban posted to its web site an announcement that the Taliban soon will release a new video of the US Army soldier captured on 30 June, according to a report by The Associated Press.

The US Defense Department press secretary said recovering the US soldier is a top priority for US forces. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that nearly six months have passed without rescue, despite the drones, high tech systems and the best trained forces in the world.

Iran: On 16 December Iran test fired an upgraded version of a solid fueled missile capable of hitting Israel and parts of Europe. The test of the Sejjil-2 reportedly was a success.

The timing of the launch is exquisite, just days after the US announced a forthcoming test of its ballistic missile defense system… in January. The behavioral style is almost identical to the North Koreans who insist on staging provocative acts to demonstrate defiance and that they are not intimidated by the threat of sanctions.

Speaking to the Danish media in Copenhagen, President Ahmadi-Nejad criticized the US military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. He called on Washington to apply major changes to its policies, arguing that "the US like any other country has certain geographical boundaries and should keep to its borders."

Iraq -Oil: Yesterday Asia Times Online posted a thoughtful article by "Pepe Escobar" who summarized the results of Iraq's oil concession auction, which was televised in a mimic of "American Idol," entitled "Oil Idol." The big winners are Russian and Chinese companies, followed by Indian, Malaysian, French, Japanese and several others in various consortia. As described the auction and the terms for winning bids appear to have been crafted deliberately to discourage the American oil companies-Exxon-Mobil-Shell won a single concession in November. The article is worth reading, despite its tart treatment of the issues and personalities.

Escobar's most trenchant prediction is, "What the early 2010s will definitely see is the rise of a relatively wealthy, Shi'ite-controlled Iraq friendly with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah."

End of NightWatch for 16 December.

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