The Early Edition: September 29, 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.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea may take provocative action on Oct. 10 to mark the founding of the North Korean Communist Party, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera warned today, adding that a “sense of urgency” should be maintained, Onodera’s comments reflecting a warning by South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong yesterday that Pyongyang could issue a provocation between Oct. 10 and 18. Reuters reports.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised to strengthen his country’s military capabilities in the face of the North Korea threat in a speech yesterday, also vowing to accelerate efforts to improve the independence of the South’s forces and move away from reliance on its U.S. ally. Choe Sang-Hun and Rick Gladstone report at the New York Times.

China has set a deadline of 120 days for North Korean companies operating in its territory to close, China’s commerce ministry said in a statement yesterday, taking the measure as part of increased international sanctions on the Pyongyang regime. Charles Clover, Bryan Harris and Hudson Lockett report at the Financial Times.

“We do see Chinese policy shifting,” State Department Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton told a Senate hearing yesterday, stating that although progress has been “uneven,” China has been improving its implementation of sanctions against North Korea, Thornton also urging lawmakers not to rush to enact more sanctions against China before allowing Beijing’s efforts to take effect. Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom report at Reuters.

“Combined with other elements, this is a new threat and this is a global threat,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) Director Yukiya Amano said in relation to North Korea’s most recent missile test after a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. Reuters reports.

North Korean officials have been attempting to contact Republican analysts to try and understand the Trump administration’s mixed messages, the president having engaged in increasingly belligerent rhetoric while other top administration officials having emphasized the need for a peaceful resolution. Zachary Cohen reveals at CNN.

A military response to North Korea is “the worst possible option,” Sir Simon Gass, a top U.K. diplomat who negotiated the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, said yesterday, adding that there would have to be a return to talks at some point in the future. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Trump has been “exploiting” the death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier and is an “old lunatic” for perpetuating allegations that Pyongyang tortured him, North Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the state K.C.N.A. news agency, the AFP reports.

The Trump administration should not look to Russia to help deal with North Korea, Moscow does not have serious influence over Pyongyang but is in a position to take advantage of the shifting relationships in Asia and cannot be trusted. David J. Kramer writes at Foreign Policy.

The story behind the arrest of two North Korean spies in Ukraine who sought to obtain information about missile technology in 2011, is provided by Andrew Higgins at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Twitter’s briefing to congressional investigators yesterday about Russian use of its platform invited plenty of criticism from lawmakers, its limited disclosure failing to reveal the extent of the platform’s use by accounts seeking to spread misinformation. Georgia Wells, Byron Tau and Robert McMillan report at the Wall Street Journal.

Twitter has shut down 201 accounts tied to Russian operatives, the social media company said yesterday, also stating that it had found three accounts from the Kremlin-linked R.T. news site. Elizabeth Dwoskin, Adam Entous and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

Twitter removed 22 accounts linked to around 450 Facebook accounts and another 179 “linked accounts,” the company also said yesterday. The BBC reports.

Twitter’s presentation was “frankly inadequate on every level,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said yesterday after the briefing, castigating the social media company for failing to understand the threat misuse of its platform poses to democratic institutions. Nicholas Fandos and Scott Shane report at the New York Times.

“Somehow it did not occur to us that, in a developed democracy, regular media advertising could turn out to be a suspicious and harmful activity,” R.T.’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said today in response to Twitter’s revelation that R.T. used political ads, hitting back at any suggestion that it was improper and adding that it is standard practice for media organizations. Reuters reports.

The “Blactivist” social media campaign was linked to Russia, according to two sources familiar with the matter, the Twitter account having now been handed over to Congress and the Facebook account likely to be handed over soon. Donie O’Sullivan and Dylan Byers report at CNN.

Trump seemed to accept that Russia played a role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election, the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said yesterday, referring to a briefing with the president in January. Joe Uchill reports at the Hill.

The House Intelligence Committee interviewed former Trump campaign adviser and White House communications official Boris Epshteyn in a closed session yesterday, Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.

The Senate Intelligence Committee called on Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to search his personal email for records relevant to the Russia investigation in a letter yesterday, after it was revealed that Kushner did not inform the committee that he had used his personal email account for official government business. Jake Tapper reports at CNN.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) met yesterday amid increased tensions between the F.B.I. and the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Grassley, over the firing of former F.B.I. director James Comey and the broader investigation into Russian interference – the two individuals declining to discuss the details of their meeting. Kyle Cheney and Elana Schor report at POLITICO.

Vice President Mike Pence’s attorney met with special counsel Robert Mueller last summer at Pence’s request, according to an individual familiar with the matter, the meeting intended to demonstrate a willingness to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. Matthew Nussbaum reports at POLITICO.

Former federal prosecutor and prominent commentator on the Trump-Russia investigation, Renato Mariotti, is considering running for Illinois attorney general, stating that the faith placed in Mueller’s investigation has motivated him to think about standing. Josh Gerstein reports about the Just Security editor at POLITICO.  

An illustration of the use of targeted political ads on Facebook in an age of divisiveness is provided by Noam Scheiber at the New York Times.

IRAN

“When we make a deal, we stick to it,” the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Wednesday in reference to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, stating that Iran would be willing negotiate with the U.S. on security matters and dual-citizen detainees, but also defending Iran’s missile program and military interventions in the Middle East. Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s “malign activities in the Middle East,” its missile program, and non-compliance with relevant U.N. resolutions in a phone call yesterday, according to a White House statement. Reuters reports.

It would be insufficient for the Trump administration to de-certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear argument, the administration should withdraw altogether and increase economic pressure on Tehran. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton writes at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

The Islamic State group released a speech by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi yesterday, although there was no indication of when the speech was recorded the audio recording throws doubt on claims that Baghdadi was killed, however it could not be independently verified that the voice on the recording belonged to Baghdadi. Maria Abi-Habib and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

Baghdadi’s speech accused the U.S. of using scorched-earth tactics and aimed to rally Islamic State militants to continue their fight, Rukmini Callimachi reports at the New York Times.

Israeli forces are confronting Iranian forces and its proxies in Syria in support of Israel’s national interests and in the absence of other parties addressing Iran’s expansionism, Jonathan Spyer explains at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 35 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on September 27. Separately, partner forces conducted nine strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The efforts to establish an independent international commission into war crimes in Yemen have failed due to a lack of support from the U.S., France and Britain – all of which are key arms supplies to Saudi Arabia. The AP reports.

Bipartisan lawmakers put forward a bill on Wednesday requiring “the removal” of U.S. forces from the war in Yemen unless and until Congress votes to authorize U.S. military assistance, however the bill is unlikely to secure a majority in the House. Dan De Luce reports at Foreign Policy.

RUSSIA

U.S. officials seek to limit foreign flights over Hawaii as a consequence of the U.S.-Russia dispute over the Open Skies Treaty, the U.S. planning to take the measure after Russia restricted flights over its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Brett Forrest and Nathan Hodge report at the Wall Street Journal.

Gov. Jon Huntsman was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Russia by the Senate yesterday, Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday, the focus of the meeting was on Iraq, the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria and bilateral trade. Suzan Fraser reports at the AP.

Russia’s communications regulator summoned representatives of CNN International today for breaches of Russian media laws, refraining from setting out what breaches had been made. Reuters reports.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The White House launched an investigation into the use of private email accounts this week, according to four officials familiar with the matter, after it was reported that senior administration figures used accounts for official government business. Josh Dawsey and Andrea Peterson report at POLITICO.

The revelations about Trump administration officials’ use of private email accounts and private jets should prompt Chief of Staff retired Gen. John Kelly to lecture top administration officials on the “importance of sunlight as a disinfectant.” The New York Times editorial board writes.

Trump’s scheduled foreign visits offer a clue of what is to come and may offer a better indicator of the administration’s foreign policy than reading too much into the president’s tweets. David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post.

The search for a permanent Department of Homeland Security secretary is now “back to square one” after White House aides were unimpressed with the candidates put forward, according to two individuals familiar with the matter. Andrew Restuccia and Eliana Johnson report at POLITICO.

IRAQI KURDISTAN REFERENDUM

The Iraqi central government’s decision to suspend international flights to the Kurdish Regional Government (K.R.G.) capital of Erbil is set to begin today, the order from Iraq’s Transport Ministry coming after the Iraqi Kurdistan region voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, Susannah George reports at the AP.

Regional airlines have stated that they would comply with Baghdad’s request to halt flights, Lauren Said-Moorhouse and Sarah Sigarny report at CNN.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian Authority Leader Mahmoud Abbas yesterday condemned an attack by a Palestinian gunman on three Israelis that took place Tuesday, the AP reports.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel’s comments that Israel “only” occupies two percent of the West Bank yesterday has prompted criticism from Palestinians and contradicts decades of U.S. policy, the AP reports.  

Letters have been sent to around 150 international and Israeli businesses by the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in the past two weeks, warning that they may be included in a U.N. database recording companies involved in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The State Department plans to drawdown U.S. embassy staff in the Cuban capital of Havana following mysterious incidents that have caused 21 U.S. diplomats and family members to suffer health symptoms, two sources said yesterday. Steve Dorsey and Kylie Atwood report at CBS News.

The Red Cross confirmed yesterday that it is organizing to visit a U.S. citizen who fought for the Islamic State in Syria and surrendered to U.S.-backed militia more than two weeks ago, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Divisions have emerged at the U.N. Security Council in relation to Myanmar, with China and Russia supporting the country’s government, while U.S., Britain and France highlighted “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley calling on all notions to halt supplies of weapons to Myanmar’s military. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The U.S. military assigned Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to oversee relief operations in Puerto Rico yesterday, as the island struggles to a crisis caused by two recent hurricanes. Robin Respaut and Dave Graham report at Reuters.

An explosion killed two Afghan police officers and a civilian in Kabul yesterday, according to the Interior Ministry spokesperson, with no one claiming responsibility for the attack, the incident came a day after the Taliban killed 12 members of the Afghan security forces in the southern Kandahar province. The AP reports.

Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested that his country would free a detained U.S. pastor in exchange for the extradition of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gűlen, who Erdoğan accuses of being the mastermind behind the failed coup last summer. Reuters reports.

There is no end in sight to the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain with both sides refusing to back down after the Saudi-led bloc isolated Qatar on June 5, and the only winners seeming to be the lobbyists. Simon Henderson explains the picture on the ground at Foreign Policy. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK