Night Watch

North Korea: This is a warning.

The Pyongyang government has announced a nationwide semi-state of war alert, the second highest readiness level, just below state of war alert. The alert is to last through 31 October.

This is a critical warning indicator, either of a North Korean provocation or of precautions against a surprise attack by the Allies. In either case it is a high cost action that signifies the North judges it is in a crisis, real or contrived.

The duration of this alert parallels the duration of US and South Korean military exercises which began on 25 October, but also follows several days of nationwide anti-aircraft exercises on 22 October, which followed the North's threat to retaliate for leaflet launches by balloons from South Korea.

A semi-war state of readiness may be called nationwide or just for the armed forces. A nationwide call for a semi-war state of readiness raises the civilian population and the military to a high state of defensive readiness to prepare it to receive damage with minimal losses and to prepare it to go on the offensive if ordered. It raises national readiness to within days of being capable of supporting the onset of war.

North Korea does this when it anticipates an attack by the Allies, either in response to a North Korean provocation or because it misreads Allied training as genuine war preparations. The North can sustain this level of readiness and inconvenience for months

In this alert condition, communist party cadre receive lengthy indoctrination that they must relate to the civilians. Civilian reservists man anti-aircraft guns around all government and key industrial facilities. School is suspended and children relocate to bomb shelters. All unnecessary travel is canceled. Wartime food and other essentials are checked. Security is tightened everywhere.

International border crossing points will be closed, diplomatic and trade missions will be recalled and international air travel will be canceled, if this is a real war precursor. These are the key, detectable indicators that determine how serious the alert is.

As for the armed forces, all leaves are canceled and all personnel must return to their units. Some reserves might be recalled to service. Combat personnel in the forward Army Corps opposite South Korea typically depart barracks for "tunnel living" wartime billets. They check equipment, ammunition and stores for war; maintain a high state of vigilance and undergo indoctrination.

In this instance, there are multiple reasons for an alert of this magnitude. It could be a precautionary move against a surprise attack by South Korea and the US, whose forces began a large exercise on 25 October.

Under cover of such an alert, the North also could detonate a nuclear explosion; launch a missile or fire at a balloon launch site in South Korea, as it has threatened. Open source materials have insufficient fidelity to determine which is the primary driver. The key thing is that the three justifications are not mutually exclusive and are all consistent with a semi-war alert.

A final point is that the leadership also has used such alerts to freeze the population in place while its minions execute a nationwide purge of the party or military or both.

As noted, nationwide civilian and military alerts impose high costs to the national economy because only essential activities are permitted. Considering the grinding poverty in North Korea, the North cannot afford this action unless a major development is about to take place. Our best guess is that some internal upheaval is contributing to this alert.

Syria: Update. Rebel bomb explosions in Damascus and in Dara'a greeted the Eid al-Adha celebration and the ceasefire.

The Syrian army said on Friday it was responding to attacks by armed rebels that were in violation of a temporary ceasefire in honor of the Muslim holiday. "Armed terrorist groups attacked military positions, thereby clearly violating the halt to military operations agreed by the army command. Our valiant armed forces are responding to these violations and pursuing these groups," the military said in a statement read on state television.

End of NightWatch for 26 October.

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