Night Watch

South Korea-North Korea: South Korean analysts and experts have begun speculating on the timing of the next North Korean nuclear detonation. Some of them think the detonation will come ahead of the late Kim Chong-il's birthday, which falls on 16 February, to honor Kim Jong Un's father.

Other South Korean experts judge that 12 February is the most probable date because that is the date the US President will deliver the State of the Union. That date also is two days after the eighth anniversary of the North's first public declaration that it possesses nuclear weapons on 10 February 2005.

Still others predict the test will be around the inauguration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on 25 February. A few think that the date will be in April just ahead of the anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birthday.

Comment: The North's first nuclear test was on 9 October 2006, Columbus Day, while the second one was on 20 May 2009 Memorial Day. The timing of the past two tests had nothing to do with the US observances. They seemed driven more by the state of North Korean science, meaning they attempted to test when they thought they were ready.

Kim Jong Un, however, seems determined to honor his father with sensational achievements. The nuclear weapons program was Kim Chong-il's claim to have exceeded the achievements of his father, Kim Il-sung. That makes next week a time to watch. A detonation on 12 February would upstage the State of the Union address as well as honor Kim's father's birthday.

It is still not certain that the North will detonate. In April 2012, the North made advanced preparations for a test so that South Korea warned then that a test was imminent, but none occurred. There is sufficient evidence to warrant increased vigilance at this time, even if a launch is postponed.

North Korea: On Tuesday, the Korean Central News Agency published another official statement. "The DPRK (Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea, or North Korea) has drawn a final conclusion that it will have to take a measure stronger than a nuclear test to cope with the hostile forces' nuclear-war moves that have become ever more undisguised."

Comment: No analysts or commentators have a good idea what the North Koreans mean by "a measure stronger." The range of provocative actions is too large and the North's interpretation of what might impress the US is too distorted for an educated guess.

The North Koreans are backing themselves into a corner with this kind of rhetoric. They have the option of backing down, in a supposedly statesman-like gesture to preserve regional stability. Thus far they have not moved in that direction.

China-North Korea: China on Wednesday criticized North Korea after the Pyongyang government threatened to take action beyond a nuclear test in response to UN sanctions. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, "China is extremely concerned by the way things are going. We oppose any behavior which may exacerbate the situation and any acts which are not beneficial towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

In an editorial published on 6 February, the Chinese news outlet Global Times wrote, "…if North Korea insists on a third nuclear test despite attempts to dissuade it, it must pay a heavy price. The assistance it will be able to receive from China should be reduced. The Chinese government should make this clear beforehand to shatter any illusions Pyongyang may have...."

"The nuclear issue complicates Sino-North Korean relations, adding strategic difficulties to China in Northeast Asia. China has many misgivings when handling relations with Pyongyang, but there is a general principle: China is never afraid of Pyongyang. Pyongyang's diplomacy is characterized with toughness. But if Pyongyang gets tough with China, China should strike back hard, even at the cost of deteriorating bilateral relations.... "

Comment: Global Times is a state-run Chinese publication whose editorials tend to reflect official views in Beijing. After reading the editorial, several Western commentators opined that China is bluffing, using editorials instead of taking action.

NightWatch disagrees. In the past 20 plus years of intermittent international crises over North Korea's nuclear program, the Chinese government never has been so explicit in public about the behavior it expects from North Korea nor so direct in threatening serious consequences for disregarding Chinese instructions.

The seriousness of China's position is indicated in is adoption of the classic diplomatic tactic of surrendering the initiative. By means of the editorial China has positioned itself publicly so that it has no choice but to take strong action if the North Koreans detonate a nuclear explosion. The Chinese will say they warned North Korea and it has brought the consequences on itself.

Egypt: At the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The president of Senegal commended France on Wednesday for its military intervention in Mali against Islamist militants, telling leaders of fellow Muslim nations that they cannot allow "a minority of terrorists to commit crimes, distort our faith and deepen hatred for Islam." Senegal President Macky Sall's opening address exposed divisions among the member nations taking part in the two-day summit in Cairo, according to press accounts.

Also during the summit, Iranian President Ahmadi-Nejad said Iran is ready to provide a "big credit line" to help Egypt.

Comment: Egypt is nearly insolvent. Mursi's government shows no ability to manage the economy and has no plan, except to take handouts from the Arab monarchies. No news outlet has reported the Egyptian response to Iran's offer, but Ahmadi-Nejad has not received a warm welcome in Cairo.

Tunisia: The killing of an outspoken critic of the Islamist-led government on Wednesday sparked the worst street protests in two years in Tunis, Sidi Bouzid and other towns. In Tunis, thousands of city-dwellers clashed with police to protest the Islamist-inclination of the government in stifling freedoms won two years ago in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The government responded by dissolving the Ennahda-led Islamist coalition government on Wednesday and promised rapid elections. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that a small, unelected, interim cabinet of technocrats would replace his Islamist-led coalition.

The quick crisis management actions responded to the murder of Chokri Belaid, a left-wing lawyer with a modest political following who has been an outspoken critic of the Islamist government and violence by Muslim extremists.

Comment: Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Its transition from strong-man government to democracy was supposed to be a model for the other Arab states. The moderate, secular constituency in Tunisia resides in the cities, as it does in Egypt.

Elections are a sop to the city crows and a subterfuge because the Islamists are likely to dominate new elections as they did those in October 2011 when they polled 42per cent. With a renewed mandate, the Islamists could claim their government is legitimate and reflects the will of the largest segment of the electorate. That would create a compression and repression scenario which usually leads to even greater instability and more violence.

Mali: Update. France's Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on Wednesday that French and Malian patrols clashed with Islamist militants who had fled into the Sahara desert, and that the resistance indicated the conflict had not been won.

In an interview with Europe 1 radio, Le Drian said, "There were clashes yesterday at Gao because from the moment where our forces, supported by the Malian forces, started undertaking missions and patrols around the towns we had taken, we encountered Jihadist groups that fought. It's a real war."

Comment: The clashes near Gao in northeastern Mali appear to be the first counterattack by the Islamists. Last week a Gao resident told the media that the Islamists would attempt to retake the town. The French and African soldiers have recovered the towns, but not yet beaten the Islamists.

The second problem for the French is their supposed local allies around Kidal, the Touaregs, who are trying to expand the area they control. Their leaders apparently judge this is the best opportunity they will have to compel the Bamako government to recognize Touareg rights and achieve self-rule in their territories in the north.

The Touaregs are looking to the French to mediate their grievances with the government in Bamako and seizing as much territory as possible to strengthen their negotiating position. The good news is that the group now active favors secular government.

End of NightWatch for 6 February.

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