The Early Edition: January 9, 2018

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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 and South Korea began high-level face-to-face talks today at the truce village of Panmunjom, marking the first official talks in two years. According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, South Korea proposed reuniting families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and expressed a desire to discuss the nuclear issue. Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The talks were proposed by South Korea after the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s address that he was considering sending a team to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. The BBC reports.

North Korea agreed today to send a delegation to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, marking the first time North Korea has participated in the Winter Games in eight years and the move signifies a breakthrough in inter-Korean sports exchanges, however it was not immediately clear whether any conditions have been attached to North Korea’s decision to attend. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The inter-Korean talks mark the first talks in more than two years, and the meeting has created optimism within the South Korean government that talks about sports could lead to discussions on broader issues, such as Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Yoonjung Seo and Anna Fifield report at the Washington Post.

The two Koreas intend to re-open a military hotline, the South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung said today, James Griffiths reports at the CNN in rolling coverage of the talks.

South Korea said it would be prepared to temporarily lift some sanctions to allow the North Korean delegation to visit the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the South Korean foreign ministry spokesperson Roh Kyu-deok said that Seoul would consider whether it would need to take “prior steps” with the U.N. Security Council and other countries to ensure the visit goes ahead. Christine Kim and Josh Smith report at Reuters.

The U.S. has been watching the inter-Korean talks closely and there have been debates within Washington about the impact the easing of tensions would have on the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy and whether Kim’s overture was designed to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. Katrina Manson explains at the Financial Times.

South Korea hopes that a North Korean figure skating duo will compete in the Games, the signs that the duo will participate are positive, however translating their attendance into a broader diplomatic thaw poses a huge challenge. Anna Fifield provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

There have been debates within the Trump administration about conducting a targeted military strike against a North Korean facility despite the apparent ease in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, demonstrating the precariousness of the situation. While there may be relative calm over the next few months, “mid-2018 could be a time of reckoning,” Gerald F. Seib writes at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea exacted concessions from South Korea without offering anything in return, demonstrating North Korea’s “we win and you lose” approach to deals and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in’s administration must avoid “getting played” by recognizing North Korea’s traps, insist on a quid pro quo at every step and have a “few tricks up its own sleeves.” Nicholas Eberstadt writes at the New York Times.

The U.S. should carry out strikes to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the fear that North Korea would retaliate with conventional rocket artillery against Seoul should not deter the U.S. as South Korea’s vulnerability is “very largely self-inflicted” through years of deliberate inaction, and the U.S. must pursue its national interests. Edward Luttwak writes at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller informed Trump’s lawyers last month that he would probably seek to interview the president, according to two sources familiar with the discussion, no formal request has been made and no date has been set for an interview as part of Mueller’s investigation into ties into the Trump campaign and Russia, and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing the former F.B.I. Director James Comey. Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Talks between Trump’s lawyers and Mueller are in a “preliminary” stage, according to a source familiar with the matter, the prospect of interviewing the president suggests that Mueller’s probe has progressed and may be reaching a conclusion. Rebecca Ballhaus reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Mueller’s team could possibly interview Trump on a limited portion of questions within the next few weeks, according to an anonymous source close to the president, who added that Trump is comfortable about being interviewed. Carol D. Leonnig reports at the Washington Post.

Trump’s lawyers have been preparing how to define the parameters of any interview with the president, according to sources with knowledge of the matter, and Trump’s team have been looking at examples from previous administrations as a basis for limiting the President’s exposure. Gloria Borger, Pamela Brown and Katelyn Polantz report at CNN.

Mueller could issue a grand jury subpoena to the president and, if this measure is taken, it seems that Trump would not be able to refuse to cooperate, Pete Williams provides an analysists at NBC News.

The founder of the opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S. has become a central figure in the Russia investigations, Glenn R. Simpson commissioned the controversial dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele – which alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials – he has appeared before congressional committees for questioning, and he has connections to Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Matt Flegenheimer profiles Simpson at the New York Times.

The U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden should recuse himself from the legal case on the Steele dossier, lawyers for Fusion G.P.S. have argued, saying that Judge McFadden has many conflicts of interests, including the fact that he worked as a “vetter” on Trump’s transition team. Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

The efforts to uncover how the F.B.I. used the Steele dossier progressed last week, federal Judge Richard Leon rejected a request by Fusion G.P.S. for a preliminary injunction against a congressional subpoena for bank records about its clients and payments and the F.B.I and the Justice Department reached an agreement to turn over information it had subpoenaed to the House Intelligence Committee. The developments have come as a consequence of the House Intelligence Committee’s fight for transparency, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

IRAN

“It would be a misrepresentation [of events] and also an insult to Iranian people to say they only had economic demands,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted by the Tasnim news agency as saying yesterday about the protests that have taken place across Iran, Rouhani also suggested that there was a generational element to the unrest and said that citizens should be allowed to criticize all Iranian officials. Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

The protests in Iran have prompted mass arrests and deaths in custody, prompting concerns about the abuse of human rights. Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports at the Guardian.

The unrest appears to be dying down but the economic grievances show no sign of disappearing, Jon Gambrell provides an analysis at the AP.

Trump faces several deadlines on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from the end of this week, ahead of his decision on the deal, 52 U.S. national security experts have signed a letter calling on the president not to undermine the agreement. Reuters reports.

Iranian officials appear to have embarked on a coordinated effort to defend the 2015 nuclear deal, turning their attention to the deal from the protests that have taken place across the country due to the possibility of new U.S. sanctions being imposed on Iran. Zein Basravi reports at Al Jazeera.  

Iran might re-consider its cooperation with the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) if the U.S. does not meet its commitments under the agreement, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as telling the I.A.E.A. Director General in a phone call yesterday. Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

The nuclear deal constitutes the first genuine foreign policy test of this year and Trump has been placed in an awkward position that may lead to him keeping the deal alive, however it is not possible to predict what Trump will decide. Susan B. Glasser writes at POLITICO Magazine.

The protests in Iran show the importance of the nuclear deal, the agreement was supposed to deliver better economic conditions for the Iranian people and the raised expectations have made them intolerant of the lack of progress being made by the government, and Trump “should also be aware that foolish moves by his administration could empower the most regressive forces and set back reforms.” The New York Times editorial board writes.

SYRIA

The Syrian military today accused Israel of launching missiles at military outposts near the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Syrian army said in a statement that the attacks caused material damage. The Israeli military declined to comment, however the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today reiterated Israel’s long-standing policy that it would “prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah from Syrian territory,” the AP reports.

A total of 126 people have been killed in the rebel-held Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta since Dec. 29, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the area has been besieged by the Syrian government since 2013. Al Jazeera reports.

Rebels in Eastern Ghouta have been engaging in talks with Russia, saying that they have exacted few concessions so far, but face little choice and believe that Russia will have the final say on Syria’s fate. Ellen Francis reports at Reuters.

Russia has been given the space to expand its role in Syria, Saudi Arabia, the U.N. and the U.S. have allowed Russia to take the initiative, partly due to Washington’s passivity. Colum Lynch writes at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 58 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between December 29, 2017 and January 4, 2018. [Central Command]

PAKISTAN

The Pentagon announced yesterday that it has frozen $900m in security assistance to Pakistan, the Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in a statement that the amount “has been suspended, not cancelled or reprogrammed.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

A Pakistan court has ordered the release of a radical anti-U.S. cleric amid increased tensions between U.S. and Pakistan. Riaz Khan and Munir Ahmed report at the AP.

The Trump administration’s approach to Pakistan is misguided: Pakistan’s geography, the role of its military and proxies, and its importance in relation to the security situation in Afghanistan means that it “has greater leverage over us than many imagine.” Richard G. Olson writes at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump administration is expected to push an initiative that would call on U.S. diplomats and military attaches to play a bigger role in arms sales, an anonymous senior official said that the plan is expected to be launched as soon as next month. Mike Stone and Mike Spetalnick report at Reuters.

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit the Middle East at the end of this month, the trip includes visits to Egypt, Israel and Jordan. Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration’s foreign policy is likely to get worse this year, 2017 was bad but a number of significant issues must be grappled with this year – such as the Iran nuclear deal, N.A.F.T.A. renegotiation, the crisis on the Korean Peninsula – that could lead to more damaging consequences. Hal Brands writes at Foreign Policy.

The Libyan city of Sirte has been struggling to rebuild itself since Islamic State militants were driven out by Libyan militias and the U.S. army in December 2016. Sudarsan Raghavan describes the situation in Sirte at the Washington Post. 

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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