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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 side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” a statement by the South Korean envoys, who met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, said yesterday, which added that North Korea wished for “a heartfelt dialogue with the United States on the issues of denuclearization and normalizing relations with the United States” and that “while dialogue is continuing, it will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.” North Korea has not yet confirmed the message conveyed in the South Korean delegation’s statement, but it seems unlikely that it would be made public without assurances from Pyongyang, Choe Sang-Hun and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.
“It would be a great thing for the world, it would be a great thing for North Korea, it would be a great thing for the peninsula,” President Trump said of the North Korean proposal to discuss denuclearization. South Korean officials are scheduled to brief the White House this week on the discussions with North Korea, meanwhile the White House has expressed caution about North Korea’s intentions, Michael R. Gordon, Michael C. Bender and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.
“I think they are sincere,” Trump also said yesterday about the North Korean offer, adding that “hopefully it will lead to a very positive result” and credited the change in Pyongyang’s attitude to the “very strong and very biting” sanctions on the regime, the “great help we’ve been given from China” and other actions taken by his administration. Karen DeYoung and Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.
“Just because there are talks ongoing between North and South Korea doesn’t mean international sanctions can be eased,” the South Korean President Moon Jae-in said today, explaining that a planned meeting between himself and the North Korean leader at a summit next month should not be a pretext for the “arbitrary easing of sanctions.” Christine Kim and Jeff Mason report at Reuters.
“All options are on the table and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable, and concrete steps toward denuclearization,” the Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement yesterday, issuing a more restrained response to the North Korean offer than the president. Benjamin Haas and David Smith report at the Guardian.
The State Department yesterday announced new sanctions against North Korea, saying in a statement that the regime used the banned chemical VX to assassinate Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, last year at an airport in Malaysia and that “this public display of contempt for universal norms against chemical weapons use further demonstrates the reckless nature of North Korea.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.
Japan has expressed concern that it is being sidelined as the two Koreas improve their relations and North Korea reaches out to the U.S., Japan has taken a hard line against Pyongyang and has maintained its call for “maximum pressure.” Some Japanese diplomats have been worried that the U.S. would engage in talks and pursue its interests without considering Japan’s security, Linda Sieg reports at Reuters.
Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on steel would have a significant impact on South Korea and may disrupt the efforts to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Ana Swanson explains at the New York Times.
“Kim has maneuvered within view of a victory his forefathers only dreamed of: membership in the world community, on North Korea’s terms,” David Von Drehle writes at the Washington Post, arguing that the North Korean leader’s actions and offers of talks have been calculated to give him an advantage.
Trump may be being drawn into the same “illusory and inconclusive diplomatic path as his predecessors,” Kim appears to be playing a tactical game and the U.S. has little option than to watch the situation unfold as taking action could rupture its alliance with South Korea. Stephen Collinson provides an analysis at CNN.
Trump is right to be cautiously optimistic about the North Korean proposal, nevertheless the opportunity must be pursued as the “tenuous” hope for peace is “more welcome than the threat of war,” the New York Times editorial board writes, also criticizing the Trump administration for being unprepared to implement a strategy for talks.
The U.S. and U.N. must keep sanctions in place during any talks, a deal must only reward North Korea once it denuclearizes and a deal must avoid the flaws of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.
President Moon’s “quiet, careful diplomacy” must be credited for the breakthrough with Pyongyang, Bryan Harris and Song Jung-a write at the Financial Times.
The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) has pulled fighters away from the battle against the Islamic State group in Deir al-Zour to counter the Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. in the northern area of Afrin, saying that they have changed their focus due to disillusionment with the international community and the U.S. – who backs the S.D.F. – for failing to curb “Turkish aggression” against the Kurds and to “stop its madness within our Syrian borders.” Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.
The Syrian government has continued its intensified campaign in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital of Damascus, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 800 civilians have been killed since the assault began over two weeks ago. Pro-Syrian government forces have been making gains in the enclave through their aerial and ground offensive and have attempted to divide the area in two, meanwhile the rebel factions have said that they will not negotiate a withdrawal and intend to continue defending the territory. Tom Perry and Angus McDowall report at Reuters.
The Russian military said that it had managed to evacuate 13 civilians from Eastern Ghouta yesterday, adding that the rebel fighters did not give them the opportunity to evacuate around 1,000 sick and wounded people. Reuters reports.
All 39 personnel on a Russian military transport plane were killed in a crash during landing at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria yesterday, the Russian media cited the defense ministry as saying, which added that the plane was not fired on and may have crashed due to a technical malfunction. The BBC reports.
Russian airstrikes on the town Al Atarib in November last year killed at least 84 people and injured over 150, a report released yesterday by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria has found, adding that the strikes may not have specifically targeted civilians but the use of unguided blast bombs could amount to a war crime. Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.
“It is beyond comprehension that, despite this extensive range of violations, Syrian victims and survivors continue to be denied any meaningful justice,” the chair of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said yesterday when launching the report, which also highlighted the “extremely” high cost to civilians as a consequence of the military campaigns against the Islamic State group in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour and the ongoing siege by the Syrian government on Eastern Ghouta. The U.N. News Centre reports.
Russia’s use of unguided blast bombs in Syria may be part of an attempt to obscure responsibility for possible war crimes, the use of lower capability weaponry would reflect the capabilities of the Syrian air force, thereby allowing Russia to shift the blame for attacks to the Syrian government. Kareem Shaheen reports at the Guardian, noting that not all U.N. officials working on Syria share this assessment.
Syrian rebels have joined the Turkish offensive against the Kurdish Y.P.G. fighters in Afrin to settle personal scores, Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria report at the Washington Post.
U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 23 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 23 and March 1. [Central Command]
George Nader, an adviser to the U.A.E., is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and testified before a grand jury last week, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The cooperation suggests that Mueller is looking at the influence of foreign funds on Trump, Mark Mazzetti, David D. Kirkpatrick and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.
Nader attended a meeting convened by the U.A.E. Crown Prince in the Seychelles in January 2017 between a Kremlin-linked Russian investor and the informal Trump adviser and founder of the private military firm Blackwater, Erik Prince. The meeting has been of interest to Mueller’s team who have been engaged in a wide-ranging investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Devlin Barrett, Sari Horwitz and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.
The Republican chairmen of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte (Va.) and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Trey Gowdy (S.C.) yesterday called for a second special counsel to be appointed to investigate alleged abuses by the Justice Department and F.B.I. of their authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (F.I.S.A.). The allegations of potential abuse were raised in a Republican-authored memo released last month which cast doubt on the early stages of the Russia investigation and the application to surveil the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, Katie Bo Williams reports at the Hill.
Closed-door testimony from David Kramer to the House Intelligence Committee in December last year was received by Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, suggesting that people working on the committee may be trying to assist Cohen, who was prominently featured in the dossier alleging Trump-Russia ties and was compiled by the former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Betsy Woodruff and Spencer Ackerman reveal at The Daily Beast.
The West would come to “regret” it if the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement falls apart, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday, following a meeting with the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Tehran and blaming the U.S. for seeking to sabotage the deal. Al Jazeera reports.
“If I have a message for you today, it’s a very simple one: we must stop Iran, we will stop Iran,” the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in Washington yesterday, warning that “darkness is descending” on the Middle East due Iran’s aggression and praising Trump for recognizing this and for highlighting the flaws in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. David Smith reports at the Guardian.
A senior commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) said today that Iran has increased its missile production three-fold, according to the Fars news service, which did not give further details. Reuters reports.
Last October’s mission in Niger did not receive proper approval from senior command, according to U.S. officials familiar with the report on the fatal ambush, during which four U.S. Special Forces members were killed. Lolita C. Baldor reports at the AP.
London Metropolitan police’s counterterrorism unit has taken charge of the investigation into the possible poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, the two victims were found on Sunday and remain critically ill. Luke Harding, Steven Morris and Kevin Rawlinson report at the Guardian.
The dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Egypt and Bahrain could last a “long time,” the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in comments published today, adding that the ongoing standoff did not mean that Qatar would be barred from the upcoming Arab summit. The isolation of Qatar began in June last year when the Saudi-led bloc accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and having too close ties with Iran, Hamza Hendawi reports at the AP.