The Early Edition: April 21, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The UN Security Council strongly condemned North Korea’s latest missile test, demanding that North Korea “conduct no further nuclear tests” and, in a hardening of the Council’s stance, threatening to “take further significant measures including sanctions” in a unanimous statement yesterday, AFP reports.

China’s efforts to rein in “the menace of North Korea” were praised by President Trump yesterday, Steve Holland and Phil Stewart report at Reuters.

China has put its military forces on “high alert” over North Korea’s increasing threats to strike pre-emptively, a US defense official told CNN’s Ryan Browne and Elise Labott.

South Korea is also on high alert as North Korea prepares to mark the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on Tuesday amid concerns that Pyongyang will use the occasion to launch another nuclear test, Ju-min Park and Ben Blanchard report at Reuters.

Reports that Russia is moving troops to its border with North Korea were denied by Russian authorities, the AP reports.

State lawmakers in Hawaii have formally requested that the Department of Defense assist with the state’s nuclear disaster preparedness as tensions between the US and North Korea escalate, Adrienne Lafrance reports at The Atlantic.

“Why the panic now?” While North Korea has had nuclear weapons for over a decade, it’s currently heading for a nuclear breakout – and it’s not bluffing. Charles Krauthammer at the Washington Post explains why deterrence is futile, and prevention’s best hope is that the Chinese exercise their influence, something they may be willing to do now for a variety of reasons.

A pre-emptive strike by the US on North Korea would be “reckless beyond belief” and even creating the impression that he might strike is a dangerous move by President Trump that may prompt North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to order his own pre-emptive nuclear attack. The Economist argues that Trump should cool his rhetoric immediately.

“Bellicose rhetoric, hollow threats, contradictory voice and little coordination with allies.” The Trump administration is testing its worrying foreign policy approach on “the most difficult foreign policy problem of all,” North Korea, writes Fareed Zakaria at the Washington Post.

Even the US military’s most seasoned commanders can fail to consider the wider political or strategic implications of operational decisions, with episodes such as the ordering of the USS Carl Vinson to “sail north” from Singapore this month, given without any awareness of the larger – and incorrect – impression that a naval strike force was being rushed to confront North Korea potentially set to multiply with Trump’s decision to release the military from Obama administration constraints and intensify the fight against terrorism, write Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper at the New York Times.

IRAN

Iran is “not living up to the spirit” of the nuclear deal, President Trump said yesterday during a joint press conference with his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni, adding that “we’re analyzing [the deal] very, very carefully and we’ll have something to say about it in the not-too-distant future.” Felicia Schwartz and Rebecca Ballhaus report at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran and its ally Hezbollah are working together to destabilize the Middle East, the US ambassador to the UN and current Security Council president Nikki Haley said yesterday, a charge Iran’s UN envoy “categorically” denied. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Iran’s presidential race next month will mainly serve as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, writes the AP, taking a look at the final list of candidates.

Rhetoric and reality are once again at odds with each other in the Trump administration’s stance(s) on the Iran nuclear deal, but the “heady days of the campaign are over, and the President needs a policy review on Iran that contends with the reality that foreign policy is complicated, writes Jonathan Marcus at the BBC.

LIBYA

The US military will not play a direct role in helping stabilize Libya, President Trump announced yesterday following a meeting in Washington with Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni despite Gentolini’s pleas for the US to increase its “critical” involvement in the war-torn country, though he did not rule out US involvement in ousting Islamic militants from Libya and neighboring countries. Glenn Thrush reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

The official heading the Justice Department’s investigation into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia acting Attorney General Mary B. McCord is leaving her post next month, leaving a major vacancy at a time when other significant positions in the department remain empty, the AP reports.

President Trump may miss a Thursday deadline to release a full report of Russian interference in the US election he set himself in January, the Hill’s Joe Uchill concludes after emails to the N.S.C. and the Department of Justice were not returned yesterday.

A spokesperson for the N.S.C. denied any involvement in a new report, and a spokesperson for Rudy Giuliani – who is advising the President on private sector cybersecurity issues – told POLITICO’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, Eric Geller and Matthew Nussbaum that he was not involved in any such report.

A more complex reason why Russian President Putin may have interfered in the US presidential election would be that Trump’s professed foreign policy vision was much closer to the Russian leader’s own than Hillary Clinton’s: economic and security interests trump liberal ideals when setting the US agenda, suggests Simon Waxman at the Washington Post.

CHAMPS ELYSEES ATTACK

A gunman who shot dead one police officer and wounded two others in an attack on Paris’ Champs Élysées last night before he was killed was known to police having been arrested February on suspicion of planning to murder officers, FRANCE24 reports.

A terrorism investigation was opened by French prosecutors, President François Hollande saying he was “convinced” a “terrorism” investigation is the correct approach, Al Jazeera reports.

The Islamic State subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack, Lori Hinnant and Sylvie Corbet report at the AP.

 “It looks like another terrorist attack,” President Trump said yesterday when the news broke, Jonathan Easley reporting at the Hill.

SYRIA

The Assad regime still has chemical weapons and dispersed its aircraft after the US attacked its airbase earlier this month, Defense Secretary James Mattis said today. Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports at the Washington Post.

The evacuation of civilians from four besieged Syrian towns resumed today after a bomb attack on an evacuation convoy left dozens of people dead and caused a 48-hour delay in the program, Reuters reports.

Evidence is emerging that North Korea has helped to develop Syria’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs, enriching Pyongyang and prolonging Assad’s rule, something which North Korea denies, reports Steve Mollman at QUARTZ.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces have taken two more neighborhoods in western Mosul as fighting in the city intensifies, military commanders there said, Al Jazeera reporting.

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out 17 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Apr. 19. Separately, partner forces conducted nine strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

TURKEY

Turkey’s president will visit foreign leaders including President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in May in an effort to repair and reshape Turkey’s relationships with the international community after months of domestic political tension, Hande Firat reports at Hürriyet Daily News.

What will Erdoğan’s referendum victory mean for Turkey’s foreign policy? Metin Gurcan explores this question at Al Jazeera.

Erdoğan has not always been an authoritarian. Steven A. Cook at the Washington Post explains how the interaction of Turkey’s domestic political struggles, the choices Europeans have made, those the US did not make, and Erdoğan’s own worldview have prompted Turkey’s return to one-man rule.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has no plans to disclose damage estimates from last week’s use of the “mother of all bombs” on an Islamic State target in Afghanistan, he said yesterday, Robert Burns reporting at the AP.

President Trump met privately with two former Colombian presidents at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last week, the McClatchy D.C. Bureau’s Franco Ordoñez and Anita Kumar report, the White House insisting that the meeting was nothing more than a “quick hello” as the President walked past the Colombians, while former president Andrés Pastrana took to Twitter afterwards to thank Trump for the “cordial and very frank conversation.”

The Trump administration is being pressed to keep normalizing relations with Cuba for the sake of US national security interests by 16 retired military officers who sent a letter to White House national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster yesterday, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has been invited to visit the US by President Trump, according to Vietnam’s government, My Pham reporting at Reuters.

PENCE’S SOUTHEAST ASIA TRIP

Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement that President Trump will follow him to the region later this year from Indonesia yesterday was a sign that the administration’s disregard for Southeast Asia so far – a focus of former US presidents – beyond North Korea and the US-China trade imbalance is about to change, write Matthew Pennington and Ken Thomas at the AP.

Pence will attempt to smooth over US-Australia relations tomorrow when he meets Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as part of his 10-day Asia trip and more than two months after President Trump’s contentious phone call with his Australian counterpart and before that Trump’s decision to pull out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Kristen Gelineau and Ken Thomas anticipate the meeting at the AP.

HOMELAND SECURITY

The US-Mexican border is “ground zero,” the “front lines,” and “where we take our stand,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said yesterday, joining Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in tough talk on immigration enforcement and border security, Rafael Bernal reports at the Hill.

Funding for President Trump’s US-Mexico border wall must be included in the upcoming bill to fund the government, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told the AP’s Andrew Taylor.

Threats from extremist groups and criminals do not justify Kelly’s incendiary message to his workforce explaining how he means to lead a vast bureaucracy on the front lines of immigration enforcement, cybersecurity and traveler screening, writes the New York Times editorial board.

The MUSLIM BAN

A judge from “an island in the Pacific” shouldn’t be able to ban President Trump’s revised travel ban, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, referring to federal judge Judge Derrick Watson who issued an order to block the travel ban nationwide last month, a decision the Justice Department is in the process of appealing. The Hill’s Olivia Beavers reports.

Emirates’ decision to pare back flights to the US because of harsher US security measures and the travel ban is not a permanent one, the airline’s president explained, Al Jazeera reporting.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

The Justice Department wants to put “some people in jail” for recent leaks of classified information it is currently investigating, Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Arresting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his role in the disclosures is a “priority,” Attorney General Sessions said, FRANCE24 reporting.

Senior Justice Department officials have been pressuring prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia to come up with a range of possible charges against Assange, an anonymous law enforcement official told Adam Goldman at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Egyptian-American aid worker Aya Hijazi was returned to the US from Egypt yesterday after the Trump administration successfully negotiated her release following three years in captivity, Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker report at the New York Times.

Philippine military chiefs visited a Philippine-occupied island in the contested South China Sea today to announce the imminent construction of facilities there, Bullit Marquez anticipating that the move will infuriate China at the AP.

The UK’s first jail blocks exclusively for extremist prisoners will open this summer in northern England, with two or more prisons to open similar blocks later, the BBC reports.

Romania will purchase Patriot missiles from US defense contractor Raytheon to help protect its airspace as part of the NATO member’s plan to modernize its military and will increase its military spending to the two percent NATO benchmark this year, Radu-Sorin Marinas reports at Reuters. 

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About the Author(s)

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE