Night Watch

Japan-North Korea: During talks in Sweden, North Korean officials agreed to reopen their investigation into the fate of Japanese nationals whom North Korean intelligence service agents kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. In return, Japan said it will start lifting its sanctions against the North.

Comment: North Korean agents kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals to be language and culture teachers, but denied Japanese accusations nearly 20 years. In 2002, Kim Chong-il allowed five of the abductees to return to Japan alive. The North said the remaining eight were dead, but without accounting for them. Prime Minister Abe has described resolution of the abductee issue his administration's highest priority.

North Korea also agreed to set up a committee to investigate the fate of other Japanese in the North, including those who accompanied their Korean spouses to the country in the 1950s, and to search for the remains of Japanese who died in North Korea in the final days of World War II.

Comment: As described in the press, the agreement with Japan somewhat resembles US agreements to search for men missing in action since the Korean War. During the past 20 years, the US paid North Korea handsomely to escort US military investigators to sites where the remains of US service personnel might be found.

The Japanese might have made a mistake, however, in agreeing to begin lifting sanctions in return for an agreement to reopen an investigation, rather than actual results. The North is likely to require additional concessions to actually search files or conduct interviews.

Having been stone-walled by China and the US, North Korea has turned to Japan to extort aid and concessions by exploiting the abductees. It wants Japan to lift the travel ban; to allow remittances from North Koreans living in Japan; and to permit North Korean ships to call at Japanese ports. Japan imposed a complete ban on all three activities as punishment for North Korean nuclear testing.

It is a staple of North Korean diplomacy to alternate conciliatory overtures among its former enemies to drive a wedge between allies in order to extort aid. North Korea has leverage issues with each. It applies leverage against one ally when the others refuse to cooperate. Diplomatic "breakthroughs" achieved using this old ploy seldom last long, usually because the North Koreans overreach and fail to keep their promises.

Ukraine: Forces loyal to Kyiv began operations against the eastern cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk today. Near Slavyansk, separatists shot down a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter, killing a one-star general and 11 soldiers, according to Kyiv authorities. General Major Kultchitsky was reputed to be one of the most competent in the Ukrainian forces.

Officials in Kyiv claimed that an anti-aircraft missile downed the helicopter, but provided no details.

Comment: The news accounts have not identified the weapon that downed the helicopter beyond calling it an anti-aircraft weapon. The separatists have destroyed several helicopters in the past month, but those were destroyed on or near the ground.

Today's downing raises suspicions about the nature and extent of separatist weapons stocks and the possibility of outside supply. The rebels are known to have rocket-propelled anti-tank weapons. They used one to destroy a Ukrainian arms depot at a base near Luhansk today. They are not known to have used anti-aircraft missiles.

At Donetsk, rebels admitted that Ukrainian National Guards control the airport. They also announced that the bodies of 33 or 34 Russian national volunteers were being sent back to their Russian homes.

Syria: Update. Syrian presidential elections will take place on 3 June. Syrians outside the country began voting at Syrian embassies on Wednesday. A sampling of news service reports indicates the overseas vote mostly favors Asad's re-election to serve a third seven-year term as president.

According to the BBC, Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are being allowed to vote. The UN estimates there are 2.8 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, or more than 15% of the total population.

Comment: The government's determination and ability to hold elections add perspective to the lack of opposition strength and the status of the conflict. To date, the opposition has not announced a plan or boasted about its ability to disrupt the elections.

Egypt: Update. Egypt's Ahram newspaper reported former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi achieved a landslide victory over his main opponent, Hamdin Sabahi. Al-Sisi obtained 96 percent of the popular vote.

Ahram reported the turnout was 48% of the registered voters. Exit polls suggested that the actual turnout was between 10 and 20%. The official final results are to be announced on 3 or 4 June. President-elect al-Sisi will be sworn in next week as well.

Comment: The only mandate al-Sisi realistically needed was the backing of the armed forces, their families and those that depend on Army-owned commercial enterprises, which some analysts estimate as accounting for between 20 and 30% of all commercial economic activity. This election did little to enlarge his mandate or legitimate his leadership. His performance in office, especially his government's management of the economy, will determine whether he can build a larger constituency.

Nigeria: Update. Yesterday, Boko Haram fighters attacked three villages in northeastern Nigeria near the Cameroon border. They burned homes and killed at least 32 people.

Comment: President Jonathan pledged total war against terrorism and announced another full scale operation in a region that has been under emergency rule for more than a year.

Boko Haram has been waging war almost with impunity for about a year and that is curioius. Its success strongly suggests it has sympathizers, if not supporters, in the governments of the northern states where it operates. The governors are Muslims who are frequently struggling against the federal government in Abuja. Some analysts judge that Boko Haram's attacks serve their interests in obtaining more attention and resources from the central government

End of NightWatch

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