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Japan: Japan will secure sea lane safety by providing development assistance to coastal countries to help boost maritime security capabilities, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said on 28 February.

Comment: The coastal countries in question are in Southeast Asia. A Japanese program to strengthen the maritime security capabilities of these countries pits Japan against China, which claims the South China Sea as territorial waters. Japan, the US and the Southeast Asians reject the Chinese assertion. Japan has opted to encourage defiance of China and in favor of unimpeded international shipping and exploration.

This will not sit well in Beijing which this week began a new dispute with the Philippines over oil exploration concessions in the South China Sea.

North Korea: On 29 February, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) carried the following report. (The statements in bold-face type are discussed in the Comment.)

A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs … gave the following answer to a question raised by a KCNA reporter concerning the holding of DPRK-US high-level talks:

A third round of high-level talks were held between the DPRK and the United States of America in Beijing, China, on 23 and 24 February. Present at the talks were the delegation of the DPRK headed by Kim Kye-kwan, the first vice minister of Foreign Affairs, and the delegation of the United States headed by Glyn Davis, the Special Representative of the State Department for the DPRK Policy.

At the latest talks -- a continuation of two previous rounds of high-level talks held respectively in July and October, 2011 -- measures for confidence building to improve DPRK-US relations and issues related to ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and resumption of the Six-Party Talks were discussed with sincerity and in-depth.

Both parties, the DPRK and the United States, reaffirmed their intent to implement the 19 September Joint Statement and recognized the fact that the Armistice Agreement is the cornerstone of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula before a peace agreement is concluded.

Both sides also agreed to simultaneously take a series of steps aimed at building confidence as part of the efforts to improve relations between the DPRK and the United States.

The United States reaffirmed that it no longer will regard the DPRK with hostility and that it is ready to take steps to improve bilateral relations in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.

The United States expressed its willingness to take steps for expanding humanitarian exchanges in various areas such as culture, education, and sports.

The United States promised to offer to the DPRK a total of 240,000 metric tonnes of nutritional food and make efforts to provide additional food aid and both parties agreed to take administrative and practical steps immediately to this end.

The United States made it clear that sanctions against the DPRK do not target the civilian sector, such as peoples' livelihoods.

Once the Six-Party Talks are resumed, the issues of lifting sanctions imposed on us and providing light-water reactors would be discussed on a priority basis.

Both parties affirmed that it is in their mutual interest to ensure peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, improve DPRK-US relations, and realize denuclearization through dialogue and negotiations, and agreed to continue the talks.

Upon being requested by the United States and in a bid to maintain a positive atmosphere for DPRK-US high-level talks, we agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Yo'ngbyo'n and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities while productive dialogue is underway.

Comment: Any agreement that eases tension makes an important contribution to stability in Northeast Asia, but this agreement has some issues of concern.

For starters, the North Korean announcement contains no mention of nuclear weapons or South Korea. The US did not negotiate as a member of an alliance and did not negotiate to suspend the nuclear weapons program. The agreements are bilateral and thus do not bind South Korea.

To put the agreement in context, since the time of Kim Il-sung the North always has tried to drive a wedge between the Allies, to deal with them separately and thus undermine the strength of unified Alliance negotiating positions.

This agreement is a triumph of North Korean diplomacy because it represents precisely what the North has failed to do for almost 50 years: get a strategic deal with the US without South Korea.

To What Did the North Agree?

North Korea agreed to a moratorium on tests, missile launches and enrichment activities, but in so doing seems to have agreed to continue not doing what it has not done for years. That explains its willingness to accept UN nuclear inspectors.

Despite the North's bravado, there are no signs the North is now doing any of the three things it agreed to suspend. There have been no recent missiles tests, no nuclear tests and it has not been confirmed that the North succeeded in enriching uranium. The North's nuclear weapons are plutonium weapons.

To What Did the US Agree?

The US seemingly agreed to nothing as well, in that it only promised to stop treating the North with hostility. However, for North Korea that means a lot, including bilateral talks outside the Alliance framework; normalization of diplomatic, financial and trade relations; and sending aid when asked, such as the 240,000 tons of food. In some versions of this longstanding policy strategy, the North expects the US will pull its troops out of South Korea.

It is not clear the US delegation understood the North's layers of meaning in the term "not treat it with hostility." The North's interpretation is not the only valid one. However, its interpretation determines whether there will be provocations that can escalate to war on the peninsula.

As for the food aid, a point not discussed is who will pay for the shipping? US and North Korean deals have broken down in the past because the US insisted the North must pay the shipping. The food is free, but the shipping is not and the US does not pay it.

There are two points of departure from the Kim Chong-il regime. Kim Chong-il never acknowledged the UN Armistice as a cornerstone of peace and stability. During his tenure, the Armistice was described as an obstacle to a peace treaty and a justification for the continued presence of US soldiers in South Korea. The North's latest description of the Armistice is unusual and out of character.

The second point is the North apparently cooperated with the US in crafting the language used in the KCNA announcement so that the US does not appear blatantly to be bribing the North with food aid for the moratorium. This is a silly ruse. Nevertheless, when Kim Chong-il was alive, after the end of the Agreed Framework during the Bush administration, the North never hesitated to expose what it called US hypocrisy whenever it could.

Finally the North Korean statement refers to the Six Party talks, lifting sanctions and providing light water reactors, dangling this mix of quid pro quos as if they had any prospect of resurrection. They do lay out the North's expectations of the way ahead and the meaning of the term "a productive dialogue."

Bottom Line

Like it or not, the US appears to have agreed to help North Korea celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung on 15 April 2012. The test of the durability of any agreement will be the North's attitude after the 15 April celebrations.

Iran: Elections for Iran's 290-seat legislative chamber, the Majlis, will be held on 2 March 2012. Some 3,444 candidates are competing for the 290 seats. More than 48 million people are registered to vote at 47,000 polling stations.

Comment: This is not a presidential election, but the composition of the parliament will be rightly interpreted as a referendum on President Ahmadi-Nejad. He won election by pledging a fairer distribution of goods and services and greater control over the prices of consumer goods. His administration has been a colossal economic failure in that he has kept none of his promises. However, he has made Iran the focus of US policy and world attention.

Other analyses stress the friction between Ahmadi-Nejad and his boss, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. That contest frames a choice among the most devout and conservative Shiite factions and the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which seems to back Ahmadi-Nejad.

NightWatch expects the economic issues will be more important to the voters than the ideological issues, including the effects of new Western sanctions.

Brief background

Ahmadi-Nejad's party is the Islamist Government Supporters Front (ISGF). Its members are said to be in disarray and not competitive.

The United Principle-ist Front (UPF) is a conservative, traditionalist group which is in control of the Majlis most of the time.

The party of the Supreme Leader is the Steadfastness Front (SF). This is the most conservative of the prominent political groups, ostensibly preferring religious devotion over national prosperity.

The Reformists are the final major group, but they have chosen to boycott the elections for the first time since 1979. They will have no say in the formation of the next government.

Syria: Update. The Arab League and European Union are opposed to arming Syrian opposition groups, EU and Arab League officials said on 29 February. However, Libya will give $100 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition, and its consent for the opposition to open an office in Tripoli, a Libyan government spokesman said.

Comment: The Arabs cannot agree, but that will not inhibit the Saudis and others from continuing their support of the opposition in order to contain Iran.

Egypt: Update. Egypt's two-day presidential election will begin 23 May, the state election committee said. A run-off vote will take place on 16 and 17 June and the final results will be released on 21 June.

Comment: The end-game for military rule is approaching, seemingly. The key issue to watch is whether the military actually transfers government power to parliament or to a hand-picked president who wins the election. It is not yet clear whether Egypt is to be a parliamentary democracy governed by the Muslim Brotherhood or a presidential democracy governed by a strong man, clone of Mubarak.

End of NightWatch

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