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NightWatch 20121021

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For the night of 21 October 2012

North Korea - South Korea: South Korean troops and riot police on Monday, 22 October, prevented activists from launching anti-North Korea leaflets across the border, after North Korea threatened a "merciless" military response, last week.

Groups of North Korean defectors had planned to launch balloons carrying tens of thousands of leaflets from a launch site near the border near the town of Paju, around 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Seoul.

On Friday, the North Korean army threatened a "merciless military strike" on the park if the leaflet operation went ahead and warned local residents to evacuate the area. "The surrounding area will become targets of direct firing," it said.

South Korea news outlets noted that North Korea has threatened similar action in the past, but Friday's statement was unusually strong and specific in naming the time and location of the leaflet launch.

Troops in the South were on high alert and deployed additional artillery and tank units to forward border positions. "Our soldiers stationed near the border are ready to fire back immediately ... we are closely monitoring movements by the North's army," an army spokesman said.

Comment: As noted above, North Korea has threatened repeatedly to shell the sites of any anti-regime propaganda from the South, regardless of whether the action is privately or government sponsored. The inclusion of specifics about timing and launch site location distinguishes the latest threat and indicates accurate situational awareness for targeting.

The North has thousands of artillery pieces and rocket launchers positioned north of the Demilitarized Zone and has had 60 years to register for targeting purposes every square meter of South Korea within range, down to and including much of Seoul itself.

It can commence artillery and rocket fire without warning, but must expect a South Korean counter-attack. The South's action to respond to tactical warning indicators by preventing the launches should prevent escalation to live fire exchanges, for now.

China-Korea: Chinese authorities were so concerned that they issued a statement calling for calm. "China expects related parties to remain calm and restrained, not to take provocative or radical actions and jointly safeguard the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement.

Comment: China's interests are peace and stability, as always.

Iran-US: For the record. Both Iran and the US have denied the accuracy of a report in the New York Times that Iran had agreed to bilateral talks with the US

The New York Times report saying Iran had agreed to one-on-one talks with the United States is inaccurate, and Iran has no plans in place for such a discussion, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on 21 October. He said, however, UN Security Council Permanent Five plus Iran (P5+1) talks on Iran's nuclear program could resume in late November, that is, after the US elections.

Comment:  Iran has no incentive to talk with the US administration before the elections. The US has no incentive to engage in bilateral talks with Iran because that would invest Iran with international stature it does not deserve and undermine the international effort to restrain Iran.

Lebanon: Thousands of Lebanese gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square for the funeral of Brigadier General Wissam al Hassan's funeral Sunday, who with seven others was assassinated in a car bombing on Friday. His death has led to two days of protests calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati for being pro-Syria.

A sit-in began late Sunday after the funeral outside the office of Prime Minister Mikati's office. A group of protesters set up tents, vowing to remain until he resigns.

Earlier Sunday, Lebanese security forces fired weapons into the air and used tear gas to disperse protesters who were trying to storm the building. Soldiers set up road blocks and cordoned off the area into which Hassan's coffin, draped in a Lebanese flag, was brought for burial.

Hassan was chief of intelligence for the Internal Security Forces. He led an investigation into a recent bomb plot that resulted in the arrest of a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician. He also led a probe that implicated Syria and Hezbollah in the truck bomb killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Comment: The protestors blame Syria or Syrian sympathizers for the attack, including Hezbollah which supports Prime Minister Mikati because Hassan was strongly opposed to Syrian meddling in Lebanon. That implies he was a strong ally of US intelligence.

This is another incident in which the Syrian internal struggle has spilled over into Lebanon. A concern is that this assassination might be the start of a campaign to eliminate Lebanese officials whose actions or sympathies abet the Syrian opposition.

Syria and Iran want Lebanon neutral, if not friendly to Syria. In light of increased Hezbollah rocket fire against Syrian opposition positions, Hassan's murder is a warning that Syrian and Iranian proxies will not permit the West to use Lebanon as a safehaven for the Syrian opposition or as a conduit for supplies.

Italy: Update: Thousands of protesters gathered in the square outside St. John's Basilica in central Rome on 20 October to protest job cuts and factory closures and to urge the government to do more to help workers hit by the recession.

Comment: Weekend demonstrations are frustration releases. They are not threats to civil order. What we look for are weekday demonstrations by professionals. They need to be watched.

End of NightWatch for 21 October.

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