The Early Edition: March 28, 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.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a surprise trip to the Chinese capital of Beijing on March 25 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese and North Korean state media revealed yesterday that Kim traveled to capital by train and spent two days in Beijing, marking Kim’s first foreign trip since he became leader in 2011. Steven Jiang and Joshua Berlinger report at CNN.

“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill,” Kim said, according to a report of Kim’s talks with Xi by China’s Xinhua news agency. The BBC reports.

“It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il-sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong-il,” Kim said, according to Xinhua. Lily Kuo reports at the Guardian.

Kim confirmed that he will hold summit meetings with President Trump and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, marking the first official mention of the talks since Trump accepted Pyongyang’s invitation last month for a summit. Bryan Harris and Tom Mitchell report at the Financial Times.

The White House said it had been briefed by China on Kim’s visit and added the trip demonstrated that the “campaign of maximum pressure is creating the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with North Korea.” John Lyons, Jeremy Page and Chun Han Wong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim traveled to Beijing with all of his top aides, according to North Korea’s state K.C.N.A. news agency, adding that Kim said in a toast to Xi that “it is appropriate that my first trip abroad is in China’s capital, and my responsibility to consider continuing N.K.-China relations as valuable as life.” Emily Rauhala reports at the Washington Post.

The top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi will brief the South Korean President Moon Jae-in and other officials on Thursday about Kim’s visit to Beijing, the South Korean presidential office has said. Ben Blanchard and Joyce Lee report at Reuters.

“I’m worried that … the kind of missiles that are threats to Japan, may not be taken up during the talks,” the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today, expressing concern about the topics of discussion during the U.S.-North Korea summit. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

North Korea has continued to operate its nuclear reactors and there is evidence that it is expanding facilities that produce nuclear fuel, highlighting that there remain significant challenges achieving denuclearization, and this could present obstacles to upcoming Trump-Kim talks. K.K. Rebecca Lai, William J. Broad and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

Parties involved in the crisis on the Korean Peninsula have differing concepts of “denuclearization,” Josh Smith explains at Reuters.

The Kim-Xi talks were an opportunity to show that relations are still strong between the two countries despite recent tensions, that Beijing has a relevant role to play, and that North Korea still has a key backer in the upcoming summits. Gillian Wong and Kim Tong-Hyung explain at the AP.

Kim’s China trip likely bolstered Pyongyang’s bargaining power ahead of the summit talks. Christian Shepherd and Heekyong Yang provide an analysis at Reuters.

There has been skepticism about Kim’s intention to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons all at once, however he may be embarking on a long-term strategy that will see incremental agreements. Josh Smith and Soyoung Kim provide an analysis at Reuters, explaining Kim’s domestic challenges should he pursue denuclearization.

RUSSIA

N.A.T.O. announced yesterday that it would expel seven Russian staff from the Russian mission in response to the nerve agent attack on the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month, with the N.A.T.O. Secretary General saying that the decision sent “a clear and very strong message that there was a cost to Russia’s reckless actions.” Patrick Wintour and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin should be “responsible as the head of state” for the attack on the Skripals, the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday, adding that Russia “has the potential to be a partner with Europe” but has “chosen to seek a different relationship with the N.A.T.O. nations.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Russian Foreign Ministry demanded Britain present evidence that its own intelligence services were not behind the poisoning of the Skripals, saying in a statement today that “if convincing evidence to the contrary is not presented … we will consider that we are dealing with an attempt on the lives of our citizens as a result of massive political provocation.” Reuters reports.

If the West continues its “anti-Russian campaign” the world will find itself in a “Cold War situation,” the Russian ambassador to Australia, Grigory Logvinov, told reporters today. Reuters reports.

A list of all the countries that have expelled diplomats and officials in response to the Skripal affair is provided by Michael Birnbaum at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

A business associate of the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was a former Russian military intelligence service officer, according to documents filed yesterday by prosecutors, which alleges that the former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates had said Manafort knew the associate had links to Russian intelligence. Spencer S. Hsu and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Several Senate Democrats have sent a letter to top officials at the Justice Department urging them to publicly commit to not interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The letter was dated March 7 but was publicly released yesterday, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) have issued a bipartisan call for Trump to let Mueller’s investigation continue “without interference,” Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces and Russian mercenaries who had built up near U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria’s Deir al-Zour province have pulled back, the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters yesterday, saying that the threat of a possible confrontation was reduced after U.S. forces spoke with their Russian counterparts. Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart report at Reuters.

“History will not be kind when it judges the effectiveness of the council in relieving the suffering of the Syrian people,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday during a Security Council meeting, joining other council members in lamenting the lack of implementation of the Feb. 24 resolution calling for an immediate 30-day Syria-wide ceasefire. Jennifer Peltz reports at the AP.

Syrian government troops have amassed around the town of Douma in the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, near the Syrian capital of Damascus, after the rebel Jaish al-Islam group refused to leave their stronghold. The BBC reports.

Syrian government forces are preparing a “huge” operation against Jaish al-Islam rebels in Douma if they “do not agree to hand over the city and depart,” the pro-Syrian government al-Watan newspaper said today. Reuters reports.

Jaish al-Islam is the last rebel faction in Eastern Ghouta and their fighters face a choice of whether to surrender or die. Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue provide an analysis at the AP.

Mortar shelling on Damascus from rebel-held areas killed 27 people and injured 58 yesterday, the Tass news agency cited the Russian defense ministry as saying. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between March 16 and March 22. [Central Command]

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) Kirstjen Nielsen issued a stern warning to foreign diplomats about election interference during a speech last week, according to sources, saying that the U.S. would detect meddling and retaliate. Ron Nixon reports at the New York Times.

The Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg is expected to give testimony before Congress about the social media company’s approach to data user and its privacy policies, according to people familiar with the matter. The calls for Zuckerberg to testify have grown after it was revealed that the data research firm Cambridge Analytica harvested information from 50 million Facebook users in order to promote political campaigns, Deepa Seetharaman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Cambridge Analytica received help from at least one employee at Palantir Technologies, according to the whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who testified before U.K. lawmakers yesterday. Palantir is co-funded by the Trump supporter and Facebook board member, Peter Thiel, and offers contracts to U.S. spy agencies and the Pentagon, Nicholas Confessore and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

Palantir admitted that one of its employees “engaged in a personal capacity” with Cambridge Analytica but reiterated that it had no formal relationship with the firm. David Pegg and Carole Cadwalladr report at the Guardian.

An explanation of the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica is provided by Al Jazeera.

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman repeated his criticisms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, saying yesterday – in a meeting with reporters during his cross-U.S. trip – that delaying Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons “means you are waiting for the bullet to reach your head” and that action must be taken “from today.” Ben Hubbard reports at the New York Times.

The Iran nuclear deal is the “strictest, most transparent, most accountable arms control agreement on the planet today,” the former Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday, warning that U.S. withdrawal from the agreement would mean “it will be 30 years before another president will ever sit down with the Iranians to negotiate.” Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday that he has “no reservations, no concerns at all” about working with the new national security adviser John Bolton, there has been speculation that they will have a poor relationship due to their differing policy positions and worldviews. Ellen Mitchell report at the Hill.

Bolton shares similar qualities with the president and he “will now be the person responsible for overseeing a process he instinctively mistrusts,” David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post, saying that “with Bolton, the [president’s] war cabinet is complete.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump has privately pushed for the U.S. military to foot the bill for the border wall with Mexico, saying that the project to build the wall would be to deal with a “national security” risk. Josh Dawsey and Mike DeBonis report at the Washington Post.

The Taliban have been unusually quiet about the Afghan government’s proposed peace package, the Taliban’s decision not to immediately dismiss the offer has led to optimism at a conference taking place currently about peace initiatives. Rod Nordland and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times. 

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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