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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.
The KOREAN PENINSULA
“The North Korean delegation said that North Korea is fully willing to talk to the U.S.,” South Korea’s Presidential Blue House said in a statement yesterday, relaying a message from the North Korea delegation during their meeting ahead of the Winter Olympics closing ceremony. The apparent shift came hours after North Korean state media said that it would “never have face-to-face talks” with Washington, Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.
The message to the U.S. was relayed by the vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, Gen. Kim Yong-chol, to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the statement by Moon’s office did not elaborate whether Pyongyang had attached any preconditions to starting talks with Washington. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.
The statement by South Korea’s Blue House made no mention of North Korea’s nuclear program or whether talks with the U.S. would center on denuclearization, it is yet to be seen whether Pyongyang’s message constitutes a major breakthrough, but it comes as the Trump administration has suggested that it would be open to talks without preconditions. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.
The North Korean message on talks came hours after it issued a statement saying that the U.S. had “brought the threat of war to the Korean Peninsula with large-scale new sanctions,” Trump announced on Friday that the U.S. had levied its “heaviest sanctions ever” against Pyongyang, targeting 56 shipping companies, businesses and shipping vessels. Trump warned of a “phase two” if sanctions against the regime do not produce results, the AP reports.
“We will see if Pyongyang’s message … represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” the White House responded yesterday, adding that “in the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.” Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.
“There is a need for the United States to lower the threshold for talks with North Korea and North Korea should show it is willing to denuclearize,” President Moon said today, according to a statement from his office. Christine Kim reports at Reuters.
Russian military spies carried out a cyberattack on computers used by South Korean authorities during the Feb. 9 Winter Olympics opening ceremony and tried to frame the hacking as having been conducted by North Korea, according to U.S. intelligence, with analysts saying that the intrusion was in retaliation for banning the Russian team from the Games due to doping violations. Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.
The five key takeaways from the recent U.S. sanctions package against North Korea are provided by Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.
The end of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics brings back the reality of the issues on the Korean Peninsula, the Games were an opportunity for improved intra-Korean relations but it remains to be seen whether the outreach would translate into the resolution of tensions. Jamie Tarabay provides an analysis at CNN.
“Moon may find the hard part of managing these relationships is just beginning,” Choe Sang-Hun and Motoko Rich write at the New York Times, providing an analysis of the difficult task facing Moon to make headway with Pyongyang while keeping the Trump administration on side.
“A massive attack on North Korea would be massively stupid,” Josh Rogin writes at the Washington Post, arguing that the Trump administration’s consideration of a largescale attack on the Pyongyang regime would lead to mass casualties, the destruction of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the dismantling of regional stability, the undermining of the global economy, a refugee crisis and huge reconstruction costs.
A U.S. delegation led by the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump also attended the closing ceremony, like Vice President Mike Pence’s delegation at the opening ceremony, they ignored the North Koreans, however Ivanka’s attendance was more successful than Pence’s. Donald Kirk writes at The Daily Beast.
At least 20 civilians were killed yesterday in the besieged rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave near the capital Damascus, according to local doctors and activists, bringing the total number killed, since pro-Syrian government forces intensified their campaign on the enclave last Sunday, to 580. Raja Abdulrahim and Nour Alakraa report at the Wall Street Journal.
The attacks on Eastern Ghouta continued in spite of a U.N. Security Council vote on Saturday calling for a 30-day nationwide ceasefire, the text of the Security Council resolution excluded unspecified “terrorists” and provided no specific beginning and no process for enforcing the ceasefire. The chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hossein Baqeri said that the “cleansing operations” would continue in the suburbs of Damascus because they are “under terrorists’ control,” Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.
Syrian government forces carried out a chlorine gas attack in Eastern Ghouta yesterday, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, adding that at least 18 people were treated with oxygen nebulizing sessions. Al Jazeera reports.
The attacks by Syrian government forces included a ground offensive that began hours after the Security Council vote on a resolution, the BBC reports.
The continued attacks by pro-Syrian government forces on Eastern Ghouta present a direct challenge to the Security Council, yesterday the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Emmanuel Macron, in a joint phone call, urged the Russian President Vladimir Putin to ensure the ceasefire was implemented as soon as possible. Simon Tisdall reports at the Guardian.
The main insurgent group in the enclave, the Army of Islam, called on the U.N. to broker the departure of the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) group from the area, the spokesperson for the insurgents said yesterday that the “presence of H.T.S. elements in the outskirts of one of the towns in Ghouta is not an excuse for burning all of al-Ghouta and killing of 400,000 citizens.” Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad report at the New York Times.
The Security Council resolution does not have an impact on Turkey’s operation against Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters in the northern Afrin region, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said yesterday. Turkey began a campaign against the Y.P.G. militia last month as it considers the militia to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), Reuters reports.
The leader of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.), Salih Muslim, has been detained by Czech authorities based on a Turkish request for his arrest, officials said yesterday. The P.Y.D. is the political arm of the Y.P.G. and Bozdag called the leader the “terrorist head,” Bassem Mroue and Zeynep Bilginsoy report at the AP.
The Syrian government has embarked on reconstruction efforts despite the ongoing fighting across the country. Bassem Mroue explains at the AP.
The larger burden of responsibility for the ongoing violence in Eastern Ghouta and Syria lies with Russia, Putin has taken every step to protect the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin now “owns the Syria conflict” and it increasingly looks like a “bad bet” that he “cannot afford to lose,” Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian.
The details of the Feb. 7-8 attack by pro-Syrian government fighters on U.S. forces near Deir al-Zour are slowly emerging, including the extent of Russia’s involvement in the attack and the role of the Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin. The U.S. should be more open about its victory against the fighters and should be prepared for “more such confrontations to come.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.
U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 41 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 16 and February 22. [Central Command]
The House Intelligence Committee released the redacted Democrat rebuttal on Saturday to the Republican memo that cast doubt on the F.B.I. and Justice Department’s handling of the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation and claimed the officials had misused their authority when obtaining a surveillance warrant against the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.). The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) said that their memo should “put to rest” Republican assertions of wrongdoing against Page and that their “extensive review of the initial F.I.S.A. application and three subsequent renewals failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical or unprofessional behavior,” Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.
The F.B.I. did not receive the dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele until mid-September 2016, according to the Democratic memo, stating that the F.B.I. had launched “sub-inquiries into … individuals linked to the Trump campaign” seven weeks before it had seen the Steele dossier. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.
Schiff and Trump traded barbs on the Democratic memo over the weekend, the president called the memo a “total political and legal BUST” in a message on Twitter, while Schiff defended himself and the F.B.I.’s approach to the F.I.S.A. application. Martin Pengelly and agencies report at the Guardian.
“This is almost like you having people defending the dirty dossier with their own dirty dossier,” the House Intelligence Committee chairman and author of the Republican memo, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.) said yesterday. Luis Sanchez reports at the Hill.
The five key points in the Democratic memo are provided by Charlie Savage at the New York Times.
“Everything is on the table,” a source familiar with the thinking of Trump’s legal team said at the weekend of the options they are considering should the president offer testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller, options include providing written answers to Mueller’s questions and, according to people familiar with the matter, the president’s teams are prepared to launch a court case if Mueller insists on conditions that the president finds unacceptable. Peter Nicholas reports at the Wall Street Journal.
The former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy and making false statements on Friday as part of a plea agreement with Mueller’s office, the move putting more pressure on his co-defendant, the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who continues to fight charges issued by Mueller. Josh Gerstein and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.
The charges against Manafort potentially involve the former Italian Prime Minister Romani Prodi and other E.U. politicians as a consequence of Manafort’s lobbying work for the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych. All the politicians have denied wrongdoing and denied taking funds directly from Manafort, Shawn Donnan, Neil Buckley and James Politi report at the Financial Times.
The Democratic memo reinforces the case that F.B.I. and Justice Department officials abused the F.I.S.A. process, even though it claims the opposite. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem will open in May, according to U.S. officials, and the establishment of a new facility may be supported by the Republican Party donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem comes after Trump announced in December that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.
“This decision will turn Israel’s 70th Independence Day into an even bigger celebration. Thank you President Trump for your leadership and friendship,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday in response to the U.S. announcement. Reuters reports.
Russia appears likely to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution today expressing concern about Iran’s violations of an arms embargo on Yemeni Houthi rebel leaders, Britain has drafted the resolution in consultation with the U.S. and France. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.
An amendment to the Chinese Constitution has opened the possibility that President Xi Jinping can remain in power indefinitely, Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher report at the New York Times.
The Financial Action Task Force decided on Friday to place Pakistan on an international terror-financing watch list, the decision went ahead after U.S. put pressure on Saudi Arabia to drop its support for Pakistan. Saeed Shah and Ian Talley report at the Wall Street Journal.
A lax agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on nuclear power could create the potential for Riyadh to build nuclear weapons, such a move would be disastrous and lawmakers must work to put protections in place, the New York Times editorial board writes.