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NightWatch 20101220


For the Night of 20 December 2010

The Korea Confrontation

South Korea: The Unification Ministry has decided to allow South Koreans to visit the Kaesong industrial complex inside North Korea now that South Korea's live-fire artillery exercises ended with no provocations. According to a ministry statement, the decision stemmed from difficulties faced by South Korean companies operating in the complex.

Comment: The announcement is important for two reasons. The South is acknowledging that the confrontation has ended for now. The South also is rewarding the North for good behavior, with the implicit promise that more good behavior will get more rewards.

South Korean media and leaders rightly are pleased that they stood up to North Korea without igniting a general war.  They set a precedent for future artillery drills that they had a right to perform in any event and had done so for years, but  obtained no guarantees from North Korea of future restraint. A callous interpretation of events since 23 November would be that South Korea got a one time pass to train its island artillery at the cost of two marines and two civilians, property destruction and civilian disruption.

That  result is very similar to the sinking of the Cheonan.  There seems to be no practical way to impose a penalty or even annoying consequences on North Korea for killing South Koreans. That is an ominous precedent.

North Korea: Earlier on the 20th, the Korean Central News Agency reported a statement by the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army that said North Korea's armed forces did not feel it necessary to respond to U.S. and South Korean military drills. The statement said the United States and South Korea proceeded with their "military provocation" despite strong warnings and that the exercises aimed to exacerbate tensions on the Korean Peninsula to save Washington's Asia policy and strategy toward the North from bankruptcy. It concluded they were not worth the effort of responding.

Comment: A crisis has been avoided, but the confrontation continues. North Korea conceded nothing by today's lack of response. That means nothing is settled, just deferred to another time when the South might be less ready. The evidence indicates the North was prepared to retaliate so that South Korea took extensive and expensive precautions. The North will take a lesson from them.

The most likely explanation for the easing of tension is the North accepted some as yet unknown offer. Long experience and the speed of the South Korean reward strongly suggest that the two Koreas were in secret conversation and Governor Richardson was in Pyongyang.

The less likely explanation is that cooler heads prevailed in the Pyongyang leadership.

The political and diplomatic events since last Thursday's Foreign Ministry statement point to a period of talks and political maneuvers early next year. The propagandists are likely to perceive a great victory for the new leadership team in using limited force and the threat of force to focus attention and get rewarded with talks. This also might be touted as an exemplar of the uncommon wisdom and statesmanship of the young heir-apparent and his advisors.

Some US commentators cited the confrontation as typical of North Korea's past pattern of behavior of bluster, provocation and easing of tension with talks. NightWatch discerns a big difference in that provocations in the past 20 years have not targeted and killed South Koreans with conventional weapons.

Those aggressive, bullying and lethal tactics seem to be emerging as a signature of the transitional leadership. If so, it implies the North's new leadership is willing to use limited attacks against South Korea, including loss of life, to coerce US or South Korean and even Chinese engagement, apparently whenever the new team judges the international community has become inattentive.

It is premature to label two incidents a pattern, but they appear to represent a new way of conducting business that contains an inherent prospect of escalation. The Allies need to be prepared for more and more serious provocations in 2011.

China-Japan: Update. China will permanently deploy large fisheries patrol vessels in the waters near the Senkaku Islands to maintain continuous patrols, according to an anonymous Chinese official, the Asahi Shimbun reported on 20 December.

The official said the arrangements are unlikely to be relaxed in the future and China intends to press its claims over the islands which it sees as a "core national interest" on par with the issues of Taiwan and Tibet. China will disclose the details of its surveillance activities to other countries, the official said.

Comment: The timing of this leak suggests it is a response to Japan's new defense orientation disclosed last week. The Chinese are challenging Japan. Expect more sea incidents.

Somalia: Several African news services reported today that the Somali militant group Hizbul Islam joined rival militant group al-Shabaab, uniting both militarily and politically, Hizbul Islam operations chief Mohamed Osman Arus said. The leaders of the two groups reportedly held a series of meetings wherein they agreed to unite to fight the Somali transitional government and the African Union peacekeepers in the capital city of Mogadishu.

Comment: The two groups have feuded as often as cooperated in the ongoing campaign by extremists Islamic militias and supporting Somali clans to defeat the Western- and African Union-backed transitional government in Mogadishu. Past cooperation agreements have not lasted, but none claimed a military and political merger. All portended another offensive against Mogadishu.

Venezuela-Russia: A delegation of Venezuelan military officers expressed interest in Russia's S-400 air defense system during a visit to a Russian training facility in Kapustin Yar, Interfax-AVN reported Dec. 20, citing an unnamed security official. The visit was made as part of military cooperation efforts between Russia and Venezuela.

Comment: The statement of Venezuelan interest seems tailored to annoy the US. Nevertheless, the Russians need to sell S-300s and S-400s to pay for development costs, to keep them competitive in the international market and to reduce the costs of equipping Russian forces. S-400s are not likely ready for the international market just yet.

A current priority is to sell S-300s that were destined for Iran. Venezuela and Kazakhstan appear to be the two buyers. The Venezuelan delegation might be investigating whether to use some of the $4 billion line of credit extended to Venezuela by Russia on the S-400 which the Russians claim is a significant upgrade over the S-300.

End of NightWatch for 20 December.

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