NightWatch: N Korea Reverts to Clinton Playbook

Night Watch
Posted: Mar 16, 2012 12:01 AM

North Korea-US: North Korea's chief envoy to the six-party talks has called for the United States and North Korea to open liaison offices in both countries' capital cities. North Korea made the proposal at a closed-door seminar in New York on 10 March.

Comment: Some Readers might remember that during the last months of the Clinton administration the US Secretary of State visited Pyongyang on the first such official visit and that the US and North Korea made preliminary arrangements to establish liaison offices. North Korean diplomats were given permission to leave the UN permissive area to visit Washington, D.C., and to select a building for their liaison office, which the US State Department apparently was to help finance.

This is back to the future. Readers are witnessing a replay of an old set of diplomatic tactics, namely the North Korean playbook for handling the Clinton administration. They worked with Clinton, so they are trying them again with the Obama administration. At that time, the establishment of liaison offices was understood by both countries as a key step towards exchanging ambassadors and establishing full diplomatic relations.

The Clinton era is the period of US-North Korean interactions in which the North began to have success in driving a wedge between the US and South Korea. It also obtained significant food and energy aid directly from the US, from South Korea and from an international energy consortium.

Thus, North Korean diplomats - essentially the same team as during the Clinton administration -- are building on their experiences during that era and may be expected to try whatever worked then. It also means that the North is probably even more desperate now than it was then. It was destitute then, after the worst floods and famine in its history.

Finally, the revival of the liaison office proposal implies the North Korean leadership is no more committed to nuclear disarmament now than it was in the 1990s. The North froze the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon at that time, but never abandoned its nuclear weapons or delivery systems programs. Nothing indicates the North is willing to abandon those systems now.

Pakistan-Iran: A Chinese bank no longer wants to help finance a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan, Pakistani Finance Ministry spokesman Naveed Iqbai said on 14 March. However, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said that there are sufficient sources available to fund a pipeline between Pakistan and Iran. Khar told a news conference that the project is completely viable.

Comment: This is a complicated project and there may be many reasons for a Chinese bank to withdraw, including new directives from Beijing to avoid high risk projects.

A key point is that Pakistan is moving ahead with a project that benefits Iran at a time when most nations are honoring sanctions, especially on Iran's fossil fuel exports. Pakistan's national interests look out of step with the international interest in stopping Iran's nuclear program. Pakistan does not seem to care.

Afghanistan: An Afghan man drove a stolen pickup truck at high speeds toward the ramp that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was scheduled to land on at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. Late updates reported that the incident was an attempt on the life of Secretary Panetta, but that has not been confirmed.

Comment: This is a serious security breach because the Secretary's schedule is closely held. Most US soldiers reportedly were unarmed in a well-intentioned action to show solidarity with the Afghans who are required to be unarmed for such visits.

Iran-US: For the record. Iran's last chance to avoid military action against its nuclear program will be in expected negotiations in April, the United States asked Russia to tell Iran, according to Russian media. Everything about this press report looks not credible, but the US has not denied it, at least not yet.

Syria: The Syrian army seized Idlib and rebels, activist Noureddin al-Abdo said on 14 March. Al-Abdo said fighting stopped on the night of 13 March, the Free Syrian Army has withdrawn and regime forces are performing house-to-house searches. News reports also reported the start of another army sweep operation in Dara'a, at the opposite end of Syria from Idlib.

Comment: Once again the location of this action provides insight into the threat to the al Asad regime. Idlib is near the border with Turkey. As long as army units are operating on the borders, the government is not threatened.

In this instance, the quick sweeps in Idlib after the success in Homs reinforce the judgment that the army remains effective and responsive to the government.

The opposition rout from Idlib was accompanied by two more senior defections from the opposition's leadership council because of its disorganization and authoritarian management practices. Several news accounts described the opposition as now in disarray.

For the opposition, possibly the only positive lesson from the recent operations is that the Syrian army's logistics system looks limited. It appears unable to support more than one major push at a time. The army seems to have no shortage of effective leaders and combat forces, but the logistics system appears one dimensional. Nevertheless, the opposition demonstrates no capability to take advantage of this army vulnerability.

Syria-Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia closed its Damascus embassy and withdrew its diplomats on 14 March due to the current events in Syria, a Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said, the Saudi press agency reported.

Comment: This action is further evidence that the fighting in Syria is primarily a proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Lebanon-Gaza Strip: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah met with Hamas Deputy Politburo chief Moussa Abu Marzouk on 14 March, according to regional news sources. The two reportedly talked about developments in the Gaza Strip and in Syria and about the Muslim Brotherhood's relationship with Hezbollah and Iran.

Comment: The purpose of this meeting probably was to give Nasrallah an opportunity to try to persuade Marzouk to bring Hamas back into the Iranian fold by resuming support for Syria.

The reference to the Brothers as having a relationship with Iran is consistent with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood statements about the new direction of Egyptian foreign policy. The implied message might have been that Hamas could be cut off if it does not restore its status as an Iranian proxy, but that is only speculation for now.

End of NightWatch.

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