For the night of 18 July 2012
North Korea: State media announced today that Vice Marshal Hyon Yong-chol is the new Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army. The announcement was made by radio Pyongyang in its coverage of a meeting on Wednesday to honor the promotion of Kim Jong-un to the rank of Marshal.
Comment: The pace of events this week and the nature of the events indicate a major crisis occurred. The dismissal of one Vice Marshal and promotion of another and of the supreme leader to the highest military rank almost certainly means military insubordination was involved.
Kim Jong-un had the same military rank as the Vice Marshal he dismissed. All three organs of government rapidly fixed that, retroactively so that the records will show that a senior officer - a Marshal -- dismissed a subordinate-a vice marshal, for cause. The entire North Korean party, higher defense and government leadership backed Kim Jong-un against the Army commanders.
No news service has identified the underlying issue that led to the military leadership crisis. Analysis of the behavior of the parties, especially Kim Jong-un, the NightWatch hypothesis is that the new leader has abandoned the military first national priority and reverted back to the priorities of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
In December 1993, Kim Il-sung officially abandoned the practice of following seven-year plans, all of which failed. He bypassed the enormous communist planning bureaucracy and declared that the national priorities were food, consumer goods for the people, goods for export and goods for the armed forces. That was the first time in North Korean history that the army's needs were made subordinate to the welfare of the people.
Kim Chong-il repudiated his father's priorities, largely because he was so roundly hated that he could only depend on the army. He empowered and pampered the army corps commanders so that in a few months he undid decades of work by his father to make the army subservient to the Party, as in a true communist system.
Kim Jong-un appears to be following his grandfather's policy priorities. The signs of this will be more emphasis on the welfare of everyday people, improvements in attire and living conditions and emphasis on raising the caloric intake of a nation suffering from malnutrition. Those were the legacy of Kim Il-sung that Kim Chong-il declined to honor.
The implications are ambivalent. Whenever the North Korean leadership focuses on internal improvements, it tends to be even more prickly than normal to real or perceived attempts to take advantage of its inward focus. That means to the outside world the North will be vigilant and quick to respond, but will not initiate provocations, as occurred when Vice Marshal Ri was Chief of the General Staff.
Internally, this government, not just Kim but his group of advisers, will work to obtain more food and break out of isolation so as to improve the living standards of the people. Kim Chong-il always talked about this, but did almost nothing to accomplish it. North Koreans remain the poorest people in northeast Asia, mainly because of past incompetent government.
The North will be looking for a positive US response to its statement of readiness to discuss nuclear issues, made in Cambodia last week.
This is a time of transition, change and opportunity. All organs of government have chosen to back the youngest and most worldly experienced North Korean leader ever. The new leaders are willing to learn from the Chinese, but will resist becoming a vassal. They want and will need to lever ties to South Korea and the US to limit encroaching Chinese influence.
NightWatch Comment: The long-suffering, hard-working North Korean people deserve better leadership than they have had since Kim Il-sung died. Kim Jong-un deserves a chance, from South Korea and most importantly the US. Change will come in fits and starts, but the dark era of Kim Chong-il's paranoias was buried this week.
Syria: Comment: The situation has worsened with the assassination of the Minister of Defense and other senior officials, especially in the national security establishment. The terrorists' showed that their reach extends to the innermost activities of the al Asad regime, which almost certainly had inside help.
The style of the attack is that of al Qaida. That is significant because al Qaida uses suicide bombers, as some sources claim this was, to try to achieve high profile effects even when the probabilities of success are low. This operation succeeded but it does not mean the regime is incapacitated. It means al Qaida or whoever prepared the suicide bomber got lucky. The Karzai regime in Afghanistan has survived similar attacks repeatedly, but with the help of NATO forces.
A US State Department analyst projected that the Asad regime will fall in 36 hours or so, based on social media activity that matches the fall of Libyan leader Qadhafi. It is not clear just what that prediction means.
Agitated twitter and Facebook postings are predictable in these circumstances, but the differences in the Libyan and Syrian situation call into question the relevance of that analytical technique.
Bashar al Asad might judge it is time for him and his family to depart. He and they could leave at any time with no warning. The Syrian regime does not depend on him in the same way that Qadhafi was the Libyan regime.
Bashar's departure would not necessarily mean that the Alawite generals and politicians and their Sunni and Christian supporters surrendered. Forces loyal to the government appear to be far more numerous and capable than the jihadists and opposition shooters. But the government forces are overextended and appear unable to contain violence nationwide. They need a new strategy and probably dependable and steady outside help.
Barring outside help for the Damascus government, the end game has begun, signified primarily by the inability of the center of government to protect itself. Outside support from Iran and Russia might help stabilize the situation. In the final analysis, the Syrian fight is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia with the US supporting the Saudis, and Iran with the Russians working with the Iranians. Iran might yet provide more help to rescue the Syrian regime, before it faces a strategic loss to the Saudis and the Sunnis.
The Alawite regime does not look like it can hold for long unless the Iranians raise the stakes. Before it falls, it will use chemical weapons to try to survive. After it falls, expect massacres of Alawites, Christians, Sunni collaborators and other minority tribes and cults. This will not end well.
End of NightWatch for 18 July.
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