For the night of 29 November 2012
North Korea- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): A spokesperson for the IAEA said that North Korea has made advances in building a light water nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. The IAEA is not able to "determine the reactor's design features or the likely date for its commissioning.
Comment: North Korea continues to follow the outline for nuclear power generation in the defunct Agreed Framework, but without South Korean assistance and supervision, US influence and in a different location. The US abandoned that agreement in 2003 because the North Koreans were suspected of pursuing uranium enrichment along with plutonium reprocessing.
The Agreed Framework was silent about uranium enrichment and about other types of nuclear reactors for the production of fissile material. It narrowly and specifically dealt with graphite-moderated reactors, which is what the Yongbyon reactor was.
In abandoning the Agreed Framework over uranium enrichment, the US took itself out of the North Korean nuclear program. US on-site monitors at Yongbyon were kicked out of North Korea and the US and the IAEA lost continuity in tracking North Korean nuclear progress in both the uranium enrichment and the plutonium paths to fissile material.
Policy choices have long term consequences. Had the US taken a different approach, it might have had US nuclear engineers from the Department of Energy at Yongbyon today who could answer the IAEA's questions. Two nuclear tests and two long-range missile tests also might not have occurred.
Politics. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has replaced his defense minister with a hardline general as part of his effort to fill the army leadership with a new generation of officers loyal to him, South Korean officials said. General Kim Kyok-sik, the general who commanded North Korean units accused by South Korea of sinking the corvette the Cheonan and shelling a South Korean border island in 2010, replaced Kim Jong-gak as Minister of the People's Armed Forces.
Comment: This change of minister has little significance because the Chief of the General Staff is the most powerful military officer in North Korea with direct command of the 26 or 27 corps-echelon formations in the armed forces. The Minister is primarily an administrative and a political position. The prior minister, Admiral Kim Il-chol who was a former Navy commander, reportedly was executed for disloyalty in May 2012, according to South Korean press sources.
The political views and the military skills of senior officers are vastly less important than their loyalty to the leader.
Syria: On 29 November, the administration of Damascus' airport cancelled all incoming and outgoing flights because rebel groups had cut the road from the airport to Damascus, for the first time.
Syrian rebels also used shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile systems (MANPADs) that were captured from Syrian forces to shoot down a government helicopter and a fixed wing combat aircraft in a 24-hour period.
Comment: The Syrian uprising crossed an important strategic threshold with the first demonstrated capability to shoot down government aircraft. This is a major escalation of the threat to the Damascus government.
One news report stated an opposition group had captured 40 MANPADS in recent overruns of government air force bases. That number is enough to neutralize the government's air advantage, provided they are distributed adequately to trained shooters. A key question is who is providing the training. That is almost certainly US special forces.
The gradual loss of air superiority means the regime cannot survive, though its demise is not yet imminent.
Several other recent tactical successes by opposition fighting groups also almost certainly are the result of US and possibly other Western training, guidance and possibly leadership. Within four months of American announcements that US Special Operations Forces were providing training to opposition groups in camps in Jordan, the opposition groups suddenly have become tactically more effective. The targets of some of their attacks are more harmful to the Damascus regime and some groups have greater ability to coordinate their attacks.
These are the effects of superior outside military involvement. These same opposition groups fumbled around for 18 months with no significant impact on the stability of the regime. The US is involved in the fight, probably with special forces inside advising selected rebel groups.
The regime is falling back, trying to find a line it can hold. That presumably is the corridor from Damascus to Latakia, the Alawite homeland.
As noted above, policy choices have consequences. Should the Alawite government fall, Syrian Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and other minorities will be killed and shrines destroyed. That is why the Syrian Kurds are opposing the Syrian opposition fighters and jihadists.
State of Palestine: The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority. Henceforth, the UN will treat the Authority as a non-member observer state, instead of as an entity. The vote was 138 delegates in favor of the measure, nine against and 41 abstentions.
Comment: US State Department and the US Permanent Representative to the UN have been humiliated in one of the worst defeats of US diplomacy in the modern era. The US diplomats failed to persuade US allies to vote with the US. It is a setback for Israel's negotiating position.
Some news pundits have called it a symbolic victory. Actually that is quite wide of the mark. The Palestinian State will now be an equal - in the UN - negotiating partner with Israel, rather than an inferior.
The positions of the negotiators are forever changed. As a state, Palestine is entitled to a much wider range of international support than as an entity. It is freed from dependence on the largesse of Arab states, the US, the West and non-governmental organizations. It has the authority to negotiate on its own, without Israel permission.
It also may be recognized as a belligerent by other states, entitling it to provision of arms. It also means that Israel's sea blockade of Gaza may be judged an act of war, rather than an act to contain a renegade entity. Airspace controls also may be affected. As for ground borders, Egypt can negotiate with the Palestinian state about how to control the border in Sinai, rather than with Israel.
Palestine also can negotiate directly with Iran and Sudan to ensure the supply of arms through Egypt. No UN member needs, ex officio, to work with or through Israel, henceforth, in dealing with or helping the Palestinians.
This is a diplomatic and strategic calamity for the US Department of State and its UN mission and for Israel. Its full consequences will become clearer over time, but US national security interests have taken a major hit.
Egypt: For the record. The Egyptian constitutional assembly approved a hastily written and poorly drafted constitution that says that Sharia is the source of Egyptian law. Expect continuing protests and riots because the future direction of Egypt is at stake. Democracy is in jeopardy along with the freedom of Egyptian women, but no Western state has made an intelligent statement.
Tunisia: The Tunisian army intervened Thursday in the town of Siliana after third day of violent clashes between police and striking residents who are demanding jobs and investment. After two days of battles, a hospital staffer said more than 300 people were injured, police pulled out of Siliana Wednesday night.
Comment: Tunisians got the franchise, but not jobs, economic progress or cheaper bread, which are all they wanted at the start. Tunisians have learned the hard way that national elections have nothing to do with prosperity.
End of NightWatch for 29 November.
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