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NightWatch 20101122


For the Night of 22 November 2010

Australia: Defence Minister Smith told a press conference in Singapore that Australia will not increase troop levels in Afghanistan, but is open to providing specialized or niche assistance to NATO or the International Security Assistance Force. Smith said Singapore Defence Force instructors will join 20 Australian trainers at the Afghan National Army school of artillery in 2011. He also said that Australia has been asked to provide additional police instructors as well as personnel for the Afghan advanced military training school.

Comment: Australia has about 1,550 soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force. Most are in Uruzgan Province in southern Afghanistan. Singapore's involvement in Afghanistan might surprise some, but Singapore has a lot of experience with artillery, usually at ranges in Taiwan or Brunei.

South Korea-US: South Korean National Defense Minister Kim Tae Young said today that South Korea will discuss redeploying U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil with the United States at the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee meeting in December. The context of the statement was the news that North Korea has an industrial scale and operational uranium enrichment plant of 2,000 centrifuges.

The United States does not have immediate plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, a Pentagon spokesman said on 22 November. The United States is consulting international partners to decide how to proceed in light of a report by a US nuclear scientist describing a small, industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant he was shown during a visit to North Korea in November, the spokesman said

Comment: This is saber rattling. Meanwhile officials in South Korea and the US declared the weekend report about the new North Korean nuclear facilities does not create a crisis because the US and South Korea knew it all along. Japan, a bit more realistically, declared the facility an intolerable threat to security; apparently Japanese officials did not know about this all along.

There is no crisis yet. Most countries that have plutonium processes for making fissile material also have uranium enrichment processes. The original reactor at Yongbyon produced plutonium, but the North has been attempting to build a uranium enrichment cascade, with Pakistani help at one time, for over a decade. The news is that it succeeded pretty much in plain view, according to the US scientists.

There have been two schools of analytical thought about the North's weapons programs. One school holds that the weapons programs may be negotiable if the right package of incentives and sanctions may be found. The other school is that North Korea will never negotiate away its nuclear weapons because it has no other leverage over the US. To date, the hard line school is far ahead of the negotiators. Japan is more aligned with the hard line school of thought and that may be as worrisome as North Korea's antics.

North Korea-South Korea: During this Watch on 23 November, North Korean coastal artillery fired dozens of rounds at a village on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island (aka, Y-P Do). Four South Korean soldiers were wounded and multiple houses were set afire.

South Korean artillery returned fire and scrambled combat aircraft. The armed forces are on high alert and promised to respond strongly to any further shelling, according to the National Defense Ministry.

Comment: The shelling is ex officio an act of war and starts another round of crisis. YP-Do is one of the five South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, northwest of Seoul. It is within easy artillery range from the North Korean coast.

The few facts suggest this is another provocation, like the sinking of the corvette Chonan in March, to show the temerity of the heir apparent. He supposedly was the brilliant mastermind of the sinking, to demonstrate his leadership worthiness. His handlers apparently intend to use these kinds of provocation to be the signature of Kim Jung-un's leadership so that the Allies do not try to take advantage of his youth and inexperience, presumably.

Ironically, earlier during the Watch, news services reported North Korea offered to negotiate the termination of one of its nuclear arms programs, most likely the now terminated plutonium program.

The sequence of three significant developments in 72 hours suggests a plan to switch international attention back to North Korea. The North's behavior during the long nuclear crisis that began in 1993 is punctuated with provocative spikes of this nature.  They occurred whenever the leadership judged North Korea was not receiving the attention they thought it deserved and when their initiatives were not generating the cash and aid commitments they expected and which they need for regime survival.

The periods of tension have been of varying duration, but they invariably ended with talks and promises of aid and cooperation. That is the usual patttern

Occurring just two days after South Korea declared the Sunshine Policy a failure, the shelling also probably is part of the North's response to South Korea's official end of its conciliatory engagement policy and programs. The message is that the North will reciprocate hard-line actions for hard-line actions, which is the customary symmetrical formulation in the North's threats. But in this competition, the North can be annoying, but is too weak in every respect to be a match for South Korea and will not have Chinese backing for any offensive provocations.

Thus at a time when the US has committed to expand the war in Afghanistan and China is busy building is sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, the North has sent reminders about a very different and vastly more lethal war that is still possible in northeast Asia, despite being increasingly pointless.

The risk of large scale fighting remains low because North Korea lacks the energy - human and otherwise - to sustain it. The North can start a conflict and kill lots of people, but has no ability to sustain a war; cannot defend itself or its population from an overwhelming Allied counterattack and will lose everything built by Kim Il sung since 1953 in a war. Most importantly, the highest leaders know it.

However, the risk of more shelling remains high for now. After the shelling stops, meetings with the UN Command at Panmunjom should clarify what the North wants now.

China-Burma: Construction of a high-speed rail link between China's southwestern province of Yunnan and Myanmar will begin in two months. The line will link Kunming, Yunnan's capital to Yangon (Rangoon), on the Indian Ocean, according to Wang Mengshu, an academic from the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Wang said a China-to-Cambodia high-speed rail connection is under discussion as well as a link between Yunnan and Vientiane, the capital of Laos. He said that all three rail connections are likely to be completed with 10 years. Wang said the project aims to boost cooperation between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors and foster the economic development of China's western regions.

China-Bangladesh: China is interested in increasing cooperation with Bangladesh in different sectors including agriculture technology, trade, commerce and communication, according to a report about the 21 November meeting between Lu Hao, leader of a visiting Chinese delegation and a member of the Communist Party of China and Bangladesh President Zillur Rahman, The Daily Star reported. Rahman called for more Chinese cooperation on socioeconomic development, adding that China is a great friend to Bangladesh. Lu said he hopes the new cooperation will strengthen bilateral relations.

Comment: China is creating a sphere of influence that stretches from North Korea to Pakistan, and surrounds India. This is a threat to US interests as well as to the political independence of the states accepting Chinese aid. A rail line to the Burmese port of Rangoon would give China access to two Indian Ocean ports with direct rail links to China. The other will be Gwadar in western Pakistan which was built with Chinese investments and aid.

Rail links from China through the Karakoram Range to Pakistan Rail and then a spur to Gwadar are undergoing feasibility studies. The link to Rangoon is much more advanced. .

Pakistan-US: The Pakistan Embassy in Washington recently streamlined the granting of visas to defense-related American officials, Asia Times Online reported 22 November. Now, the officials are granted visas within 24 hours. Previously, visas took several months, and passed through the Pakistan Defence Ministry and military intelligence. The office of President Zardari reportedly intervened for the change.

Comment: The timing of the change in connection with the prolongation of the NATO mission to 2014 and beyond looks more than serendipitous. A Reader might suspect that the promise of US combat forces in Afghanistan for another four or five years more or less parallels the tenure of the elected civilian government of Pakistan. The civilian government would be encouraged by the close at hand American military presence as a deterrent against a coup. The Pakistan Army also would derive support in military operations against militants because it would not operate alone.

Madagascar: Update. A new constitution in Madagascar was approved by nearly three-quarters of voters the week of Nov. 15, according to the country's electoral commission, Reuters reported 22 November. With 99.37 percent of votes counted, 74.13 percent approved the constitution, the commission said. Voter turnout was 52.91 percent. The coup attempt also was settled over the weekend.

End of NightWatch for 22 November.

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