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NightWatch 20150312

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For the night of 12 March 2015

North Korea-South Korea: Another controversy has arisen at the Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex. This time the dispute is over minimum wages paid to North Korean workers at Kaesong.

On 10 March, South Korea announced it will take administrative and legal measures against North Korea for unilaterally demanding an increase in minimum wages for its workers at the Kaesong complex. The measures include withdrawing all the companies at the complex, should North Korea carry out a threat to withdraw the workers.

A South Korean official from the Unification Ministry said, "We cannot accept the North's demand to deal unilaterally with wage issues that should be adjusted based on discussions between the South and North."

As part of its efforts to resolve the conflict, Seoul proposed once again to hold a joint committee meeting. No joint committee meetings have convened in months.

Comment: The North demanded increased wages in early December 2014, pursuant to unilateral legislative decision by the Standing Committee of the North Korean Supreme People's Assembly in November. The South had already agreed to raise wages, but arranged through a joint process.

The issue of wages would seem to be solvable easily through negotiations. However, the wages paid for the 50,000 North Koreans who work at Kaesong are paid to the state, which takes a large share. The decision by the Standing Committee means the wage issue has high priority. At this time, it is a low level test of wills, but it is a reminder of the 2013 crisis.

In April 2013, North Korea pulled its work force from Kaesong during the crisis over ballistic missile testing and the North's nuclear test on 12 February. After months of escalating confrontation between North Korea and the US and its Allies that threatened war, tension slowly eased. Kaesong eventually returned to normal operations in September 2013. That crisis was North Korea's most serious effort to hold Kaesong as a hostage to extract concessions from South Korea and the US. The effort generally failed.

One of the lessons of that crisis is that North Korea needs the Kaesong complex for the hard currency and benefits it provides. Recent North Korean behavior does not suggest an intention to escalate the wage issue, but seemingly small issues can be the leading edge of a crisis, especially when the issue involves money.

The South's offer to hold a joint committee meeting - one of the confidence building measures on which both countries agreed during the 2013 crisis-is a tactic for probing the North's ultimate aims in increasing tension at Kaesong.

As for the North's need for hard currency, in January 2015, when North Korean officials were pushing Kim Jong Un's themes of national reconciliation, reliable press services reported that North Korean and South Korean negotiators met in Singapore to discuss arrangements for a North-South summit. The North demanded that South Korean pay North Korea $10 billion to hold the summit. The South Koreans rejected the demand.

Saudi Arabia-Egypt: Egyptian President al-Sisi is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on Sunday to meet King Salman for the first time. Al-Sisi was close to the late King Abdallah, but some commentators judge his relationship with King Salman is less friendly.

Comment: In the past three months, most Arab and many non-Arab Muslim leaders have visited Riyadh to meet the new king. This is al-Sisi's turn. Al-Sisi's visit is significant because of his comments on the need for reform in Islam and his proposal for a joint Arab military force to handle crises, especially Islamic extremism.

Some of his remarks could be interpreted as infringing on the responsibilities of the Saudi king. At a minimum, al-Sisi's call for reform in Islam is far out in front of any Arab Muslim leader. His proposal for a joint arab military force also is controversial.

The official statements about the visit should provide some insight as to the future relationship between the two governments. In many respects, prospects for greater regional stability depend on this relationship.

Libya: On 12 March, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on a police station in Tripoli on Thursday. The web posting included an image of the destroyed outpost.

A bomb placed under a police car close to the Foreign Ministry in central Tripoli caused property damage and slightly injured one police officer.

Libyan press reported that ISIL also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Corinthia luxury hotel in Tripoli in January. That attack killed five foreigners and at least four Libyans. ISIL also murdered 22 Egyptian Christians in Surt.

Comment: ISIL in Libya is just getting started but it is following the tactics of outrage used by ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Some analysts have judged that the object of the outrageous acts is to provoke a "Christian" backlash that would unite all Islamic states in a war of civilizations and faiths, led by the Islamic State.

Terror attacks against police are direct assaults against the established order. One of their effects is to make the citizens doubt the police can protect them. Another is to de-legitimate the established order by demonstrating it cannot perform its primary function: protecting itself and the citizens. ISIL's aim is to replace the existing order with its version of a caliphate.

The attack in Tripoli and the atrocity in Surt showcase the extent of the power vacuum that exists in Libya. There are two governing entities - one in Tripoli and one in Tobruk -- but neither could keep ISIL from establishing itself in Surt. With control of Surt, ISIL would have a base from which to recruit and expand with little opposition.

Nigeria-ISIL: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant welcomed a pledge of allegiance to it made by the Nigerian jihadist organization Boko Haram, according to an audiotape purportedly from its spokesman.

"We announce to you to the good news of the expansion of the caliphate to West Africa because the caliph... has accepted the allegiance of our brothers of the Sunni group for preaching and the jihad."

Comment: Boko Haram is under pressure and is seeking support from ISIL. ISIL's initial response appears favorable. The implications are that the allied forces working to suppress Boko Haram in Nigeria need to work fast and thoroughly before ISIL decides to start sending help.

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End of NightWatch for 12 March.

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