The Early Edition: April 18, 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 C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a visit to Pyongyang on or around April 1, according to sources, explaining that the secret visit was part of efforts to lay the groundwork for the possible Trump-Kim summit meeting in May or early June. Pompeo’s trip came shortly after he was nominated by Trump to be new Secretary of State, Shane Harris, Carol D. Leonnig, Greg Jaffe and David Nakamura report at the Washington Post.

“We have had direct talks,” President Trump said yesterday during a joint press conference at Mar-a-Lago with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, adding that “very high levels” of discussion have been taking place between the U.S. and North Korea. The White House later emphasized that the president has not yet spoken directly to Kim, Jeff Zeleny, Elise Labott and Ben Westcott report at CNN.

Trump said that five possible locations were being considered for the summit meeting with Kim, but none are in the U.S.; that he “really believe[s] there is a lot of goodwill …. We’ll see what happens …;” and that the U.S. and Japan were “very unified on the subject of North Korea.” Rebecca Ballhaus, Peter Nicholas and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ll either have a very good meeting [with North Korea], or we won’t have a good meeting, and maybe we won’t have a meeting at all, depending on what’s going on,” Trump told reporters as he sat with Prime Minister Abe. Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Trump said he would give his blessing to the two Koreas to “discuss the end of the war” when Kim meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, however a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War could create complications and further muddy diplomacy in East Asia. Mark Landler and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

Kim is expected to formally announce his willingness to denuclearize North Korea when he meets with Moon and express this in a joint declaration, according to Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, adding that top South Korean national security and intelligence officials would visit Pyongyang to resolve any significant issues before the summit meeting, if need be. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

“As one of the plans, we are looking at a possibility of shifting the Korean Peninsula’s armistice to a peace regime,” a top South Korean official said of the upcoming inter-Korean summit. Josh Smit and Ju-min Park report at Reuters.

Family members of abducted Japanese citizens have been pushing for Trump to raise their case forcefully during his meeting with Kim and get a firm commitment from the North Korean leader that the Japanese abductees be returned home. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

An overview of previous attempts at U.S.-North Korea dialogue is provided by Austin Ramzy and Emily Cochrane at the New York Times.

The two Koreas cannot end the Korean War without the involvement of other countries that fought from 1950-53, Kim Tong-Hyung explains at the AP.

SYRIA

Russia’s U.N. ambassador strongly criticized the U.S., U.K. and France at a U.N. Security Council meeting yesterday, stating that the recent strikes – which were in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on the town of Douma on April 7 – had “considerably” set back diplomatic efforts. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

A team of investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) have had their visit to Douma delayed due to gunfire at the site, a U.N. source has said that O.P.C.W. inspectors are unlikely to reach Douma today. Reuters reports.

Doctors on the ground in Douma have said that they have been subjected to “extreme intimidation” by Syrian officials and have been pressured not to talk about the alleged chemical weapons attack. Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen report at the Guardian.

“We are in discussions with the U.S. and have been since the beginning of the Syrian crisis about sending forces into Syria,” the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said yesterday, making the comments after the Trump administration said it was trying to build up a force from Arab nations to stabilize Syria once the U.S. begins to withdraw its troops. Loveday Morris and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia had proposed a similar idea to the Obama administration, Al-Jubeir said yesterday. Al Jazeera reporting.

The national security adviser John Bolton and the nominee for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been leading the efforts to build a coalition of Arab forces, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The countries being approached are Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., Zachary Cohen reports at CNN.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about the Trump administration’s Syria strategy, making the comments yesterday after receiving a closed-door congressional briefing by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Mattis urged Trump to seek congressional authorization before launching U.S. strikes against Syria, according to officials familiar with the matter. Helene Cooper reports at the New York Times.

President Trump was angered by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley when she said Sunday that the U.S. would impose fresh sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Peter Baker, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

The disagreement on sanctions spilled out publicly yesterday, with the White House and Haley issuing competing statements. The BBC reports.

Russian news agencies today reported that the U.S. has informed the Russian embassy that there would be no new sanctions for now, citing a source from the Russian foreign ministry. Reuters reports.

The Israeli military targeted an Iranian anti-aircraft battery at the T-4 Syrian airbase last week with the tacit support of the U.S., according to sources, explaining that Israel had told the Trump administration in advance about the planned strike. Dion Nissenbaum and Rory Jones report at the Wall Street Journal.

Israeli media yesterday revealed details of alleged Iranian aircraft presence at five Syrian bases, it is believed that the information was leaked by the Israeli military. Dan Williams reports at Reuters.

An unnamed U.S. citizen captured in Syria in September and held as an enemy combatant will be transferred to a foreign country, according to redacted version of a court document that was made public yesterday. The American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) has said that the unlawful detention and rendering of the U.S. citizen amounts to an “unconscionable violation of his constitutional rights” and that it planned to challenge the Pentagon’s transfer decision. Jessica Donati reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An explanation of the O.P.C.W.’s role and its investigative methods is provided by Palko Karasz at the New York Times.

The Trump administration faces a similar conundrum as the Obama administration in Syria, the U.S. must be much clearer about its objectives and strategy, and understand the dynamics of the competing parties on the ground. The national security adviser to former President Barack Obama, Susan E. Rice, writes at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 15 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between April 6 and April 12. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor … and we will not be having this on the floor of the Senate,” the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday about legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Legislation to protect Mueller is “unnecessary,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said yesterday, shortly before McConnell’s comments. Rebecca Shabad reports at NBC News.

Trump has changed his mind on having an interview with Mueller due to the recent F.B.I. raid on his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, according to people familiar with the matter. Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

The potential for a crisis should Trump decide to fire Mueller is analyzed by the Watergate-era reporter, Stanley Cloud, at the Guardian.

YEMEN

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday questioned officials on the U.S. role in Yemen, U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels has faced increasing criticism. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

“A negotiated political settlement through inclusive intra-Yemeni dialogue is the only way to end the Yemeni conflict,” the new U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths said yesterday, informing the Security Council in a briefing that he intends to develop principles for peace negotiations within the next two months. The U.N. News Centre reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

It appears increasingly unlikely that C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo will receive the support of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his nomination to be Trump’s new Secretary of State, two Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about Pompeo’s past statements, his views and his relationship with the president. Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

The Chinese navy today held live-fire exercises near Taiwan amid increased anxieties and tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. Gillian Wong reports at the AP.

The defense team of suspected al-Qaeda commander Abd al-Haqi al-Iraqi have protested the timetable for a mid-2019 trial date, saying that they have been inadequately resourced and would not have sufficient time to prepare. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Scientists and medical professionals still cannot explain the mysterious health symptoms suffered by U.S. and Canadian diplomats posted to Cuba, Amanda Erickson reports at the Washington Post.

Suspected supporters of the Islamic State group in Iraq are being processed through the Iraqi judicial system, some have faced extraordinarily short trials that culminate in death sentences, raising concerns about miscarriages of justice. Margaret Coker and Falih Hassan report at the New York Times.

The future of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is in doubt, the appointment of Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton adds to the volatility of the situation. David Gardner writes at the Financial 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