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NightWatch 20100818

NightWatch

For the Night of 18 August 2010

South Korea-North Korea: North Korea offered to hold a summit with South Korea in an apparent bid to secure economic aid, but Seoul rejected the idea citing increased tensions, a news report said 18 August.

The South Korean government told North Korea last year that it would give the North aid if Pyongyang agreed to a summit, but when the North recently asked whether that offer stood, it was told that circumstances had changed, according to the report in Dong-a Ilbo, which cited unidentified South Korean government officials.

Comment: The timing of the exchanges is worth noting. The South made the initial aid and summit offer a year ago. Like poor countries everywhere, the North responded this year when internal economic conditions became desperate. Its timing was poor because the changed circumstances are the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan last March. Obviously security and economic policy are not coordinated in North Korea.

This item contains three important points. First is that it attests to the existence of continuing exchanges between the two Koreas outside the public domain. Second is that these exchanges have included discussion of another summit. The last was held in 2000 in Pyongyang. Third is that economic conditions in North Korea are so desperate that it sought to manipulate its arch enemy into helping, apparently because it has no friends or they are tired of feeding resources into a failed state.

Considering North Korea's absurd pattern of behavior, the only country in the world willing to provide steady aid is South Korea, but now with conditions.

North Korea: A North Korean fighter jet, originally reported to be a helicopter, crashed inside China today, killing the pilot, South Korean intelligence and Chinese news sources reported on 18 August.

Experts identified the aircraft as a MiG-21, a Vietnam-war vintage air superiority fighter. Based on the images in Chinese media, the pilot attempted to glide the aircraft into a landing, suggesting it ran out of fuel. The images show no sign of antiaircraft fire or deformed sheet metal from an external blast. The pilot apparently ran out of fuel and tried to land about 100 nm inside China.

Comment: International air experts posited two explanations. The least plausible is that the aircraft was being ferried to a Chinese base for upgrades or repair. North Korea has maintained MiG-21 FISHBED fighters for four generations; has depot-level overhaul, maintenance and modification facilities from decades ago and only would need Chinese technical assistance for a 50 year old airframe for sophisticated electronic upgrade work of some kind. In that event, a flight of MiG-21s, rather than a single aircraft, would have been in the air at the same time.

The other explanation is that a would-be defector crashed and died. That scenario is entirely plausible because pilots always are provided insufficient fuel to permit them to defect.

The North Korean air corps has experienced three defections, not counting this latest crash, since the end of the Korean War. One reason for this is the discipline and patriotic loyalty of the pilots. Another is that military aircraft never are provided enough fuel to fly more than 100 nm outside the boundaries of North Korea precisely because they might attempt to defect.

The US media theory that the pilot might have been trying to defect to Russia has no basis in open source reporting. Old hands know that fighters never get enough fuel to fly far beyond territorial airspace in the west and there are no fighters based in the east that can reach Russia.

The last defection was by a MiG-19/F-6 pilot in 1996 who flew his fighter to the South Korean airbase at Suwon, before running out of fuel.

There is no larger political significance from this tragedy except from the confident knowledge that life in the peoples' paradise does not suit every North Korean. Had the pilot lived, he might have provided key insights into recent tactical training.

Russia-Afghanistan: For the record. Russian President Medvedev proposed that Russia revisit bilateral economic projects with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan originally launched during the Soviet era, RIA Novosti reported 18 August. At a quadrilateral meeting with his counterparts from those countries, Medvedev said resuming the economic projects -- specifically in energy and social development -- could help resolve a number of social issues. Revisiting the programs will also add momentum to bilateral economic development between Russia and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, Medvedev added.

Comment: Multiple international news articles spotlighted today a variety of Russian interests in and concerns about Afghanistan and central Asia. Suspicious readers might conclude that the Russians have been given clearance to assert their interests, as part of a gradual transfer of non-military responsibilities to countries that have much larger equities in the success of Allied Coalition operations.

Lebanon: After a long delay, parliament passed a law which allows Palestinian refugees to work legally in Lebanon.

To meet objections from a number of Christian factions, the legislation was heavily diluted from the version proposed earlier in the summer by the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. The proposal to accord Palestinians the right to buy property aroused fierce opposition from those nervous that it might lead eventually to the permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon.

Analysts' comment: There are an estimated 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon and, given its delicate sectarian balance, their status is a sensitive issue. Many are still living in camps where conditions are dire. But the law is unlikely to transform their lives, as they will not be able to work in the public sector or for certain professions, nor buy property.

NightWatch Comment: The new law should help lighten the burden of supporting a large refugee population, but has larger importance in normalizing the status of the large Palestinian population. In the complicated sectarian balance in Lebanon, legitimating the Palestinians would seem to favor the Sunni parties against the pro-Iranian Shiites, such as Hezbollah.

The NightWatch hypothesis is that Saudi-backed Sunnis are in the ascendancy. Legitimating the Palestinians in any capacity reinforces that hypothesis. The significance is that the coalition of Christian and Sunni Muslim factions in parliament are having success in uniting against the Shiites of Hezbollah.

The Implications are that the new constellation of US-, French-, Saudi-, and Syrian -backed Lebanese political factions might be sufficiently powerful to restrain Iranian influence in south Lebanon; to keep Hezbollah from provoking Israel; and to assert Lebanese sovereignty along the border with Israel without instigating an escalating encounter.

Colombia: The Constitutional Court yesterday declared an agreement granting US military access to Colombian bases unconstitutional on procedural grounds. La Patilla reported the vote was 6-3 against the agreement, and Semana reported the court would soon give a press conference to explain the details. The constitutional court ruled the 2009 accord should be redrafted as an international treaty and sent to Colombia's Congress for approval.

The agreement would have allowed US forces to have access to seven Colombian bases that help support operations against drug trafficking and terrorism. This is the draft legislation that other Latin American leaders criticized lat year because it abetted a rise in US regional influence.

The deal agreed by former President Alvaro Uribe in October 2009 gave the US access to the bases for 10 years and would see a maximum of 800 US military personnel and 600 civilian defense contractors based in Colombia.

The court's chief justice Mauricio Gonzalez said the deal was "an arrangement which requires the State to take on new obligations as well as an extension of previous ones." He said that as such, it should be "handled as an international treaty, that is, subject to congressional approval". The court did not rule on the legitimacy of the agreement itself and the ruling does not mean the US has to leave the country altogether.

Comment: President Juan Manuel Santos said the court ruling will have little impact on U.S. military help fighting rebels and will not affect the operations of U.S. troops and contractors working with Colombia's military, The Associated Press reported 18 August.  The ruling is primarily procedural not substantive. Nonetheless, it will be an inconvenience.

End of NightWatch for 18 August.

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