The Early Edition: May 16, 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

“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue,” a statement attributed to the senior North Korean foreign ministry official Kim Kye-Gwan said today, warning that a sole focus on denuclearization would lead Pyongyang to reconsider holding summit talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12. Jonathan Cheng, Michael R. Gordon and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

The statement came hours after the North Korean regime cast doubt on the upcoming summit by canceling today’s scheduled talks with South Korean officials less than 24 hours after agreeing to them, protesting joint U.S.-South Korean military drills taking place across the border. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

South Korea has described North Korea’s decision to cancel the high-level meeting as “regrettable”, and has demanded a quick return to the talks. AP reports.

Kim Kye-Gwan’s outlined that his country would not follow the example of  Libya and Iraq in his statement – countries which he claimed had met a “miserable fate” at the hands of “big powers” – and singled out John Bolton, President Trump’s new national security adviser, for condemnation. Choe Sang-Hun and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.

The statement follows Bolton’s recent comments that North Korea could follow a “Libya model” of verifiable denuclearization; Kim has made clear that “we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him.” The BBC reports.

Bolton had suggested that North Korea’s nuclear warheads should be shipped under inspection to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they would be systematically destroyed at the nuclear research center run by the Department of Energy. Donald Kirk reports at The Daily Beast.

This is not the first time that North Korea has been critical of Bolton – the regime previously clashed with Trump’s new national security adviser when he worked under the Bush administration, calling him “human scum” and a “bloodsucker”. Gabriela Baczynska reports at Reuters.

Kim Kye-Gwan’s statement warned that Trump would remain as a “failed president” if he followed in the steps of his predecessors, adding that “we will appropriately respond to the Trump administration if it approaches the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting with a truthful intent to improve relations.”   Julian Borger and Justin McCurry report at the Guardian.

“We are aware of the South Korean media report,” the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement, also claiming that “The United States will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies.” Cristiano Lima reports at POLTICO.

The joint U.S.-South Korean exercises involved 100 warplanes, and were defended by the U.S. Defense Department as “defensive …[a] routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness.” Daniel Arkin reports at NBC.

“Kim Jong-un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the U.S. and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises,” the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert suggested, claiming that “we will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim.” Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

The Pentagon has made a point of keeping the annual joint exercises with South Korea out of the press and even Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made no secret that he feared that talking about exercises could somehow complicate the work of diplomats. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang has commented today that all parties should demonstrate goodwill and sincerity to create a conducive atmosphere for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Philip Wen reports at Reuters.

Analysts say that Kim Jong-un is unlikely to pull out of the upcoming summit and that threats to do so should be seen as attempts to maximize the regime’s bargaining power. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

North Korea’s about-face is a return to form, comments Gerry Mullany in the New York Times, detailing five other occasions on which Pyonyang has reversed its position.

Commercial satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has started to remove some structures around its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, but some analysts are concerned that the dismantling of the surface-level support structures does not go far enough towards “complete permanent denuclearization.” Christine Kim and Malcolm Foster report at Reuters.

The White House has rebuffed an appeal from the U.N to expand Food Aid to North Korea, regarding private investment in Pyongyang, rather than aid, as the potential prize of a nuclear deal. Colum Lynch reports at Foreign Policy.

North Korea’s activity in the global I.T. sector is a complex and underappreciated problem, argue Andrea Berger and Cameron Trainer at The Daily Beast, reporting that I.T. firms linked to Pyongyang are developing encryption technologies, virtual private networks, and software for fingerprint scanning or facial recognition which are then covertly sold abroad.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel has faced international condemnation for its response to protests at its border fence with Gaza and the killing of 60 Palestinians, Israeli forces used live gunfire against protestors gathering at the fence on Monday, which coincided with the opening ceremony of the U.S. embassy in the contested city of Jerusalem and ahead of the day that Palestinians mark as the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” commemorating the mass displacement of Palestinians at the time of Israel’s creation 70 years ago. Oliver Holmes, Hazem Balousha and Peter Beaumont report at the Guardian.

The U.N. Security Council convened for an emergency meeting yesterday to discuss the violence in Gaza, senior U.N. officials and ambassadors from foreign countries, including U.S. allies, strongly criticized Israel for its disproportionate use of force and the U.S. for failing to call for Israel to exercise restraint. Carol Morello, Loveday Morris and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

Kuwait has said it would circulate a resolution today condemning the killings, the U.S. is expected to veto the resolution which also calls for U.N. Security-General António Guterres to set up an independent investigation into the increased violence and responsibility for it. Farnaz Fassihi reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Palestinian envoy to the U.N. called the killings a “crime against humanity” while the Israeli ambassador said the protestors were incited by the militant Palestinian Hamas group in a heated exchange at the Security Council. The BBC reports.

“Israel has a responsibility to calibrate its use of force, to not use lethal force, except as a last resort,” the U.N. Special Coordinator the Middle East Peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said in his briefing to the Council yesterday, also calling on Hamas not to use protestors as a diversion to carry out attacks on Israel. The U.N. News Centre reports.

“No one would. No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said at the Council meeting, blaming Hamas for inciting violence and defending the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem. Jennifer Peltz reports at the AP.

Haley walked out of the Council before the Palestinian envoy spoke, during her comments at the meeting she questioned why there was no discussion of Iranian violence in the region and used her comments to congratulate Israel on its 70th independence anniversary. Niole Gaouette, Richard Roth and Elizabeth Joseph report at CNN.

The Palestinian envoy to Washington has been recalled by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Israel and Turkey have been engaged in a diplomatic spat over the Israel-Palestinian conflict, yesterday Turkey temporarily expelled the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and called for the Israeli consul general in Istanbul to temporarily leave, prompting Israel to summon a top Turkish diplomat to discuss “unbecoming” treatment of the Israeli ambassador. Al Jazeera reports.

The Arab League will hold a meeting of foreign ministers tomorrow to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Egyptian state M.E.N.A. news agency reported yesterday. Reuters reports.

Fears of an escalation into military clashes between Hamas and Israeli forces did not materialize yesterday. The Gaza strip, which is controlled by Hamas, returned to relative calm as protestors buried the dead, however tensions remain high and there is uncertainty over what will happen next, Declan Walsh and Iyad Abuheweila explain at the New York Times.

The U.S. approach to Israel-Palestine is the latest incident showing a divergence between Washington and its European allies, Europeans reiterated their opposition to the U.S. decision to relocate their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and their response comes shortly after Trump decided to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which Europe is keen to salvage. Steven Erlanger explains at the New York Times.

The Trump administration has repeated its position that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects reality, the truth is that the president and remarks from administration officials about Jerusalem, the embassy and the violence on Monday could not be further from reality. Kathleen Parker writes at the Washington Post.

Israel needs a better approach to Hamas’s new strategy of mass marches, the response to the Palestinian group’s “cruel and cynical” tactics undermines Israel’s moral and political standing. The Washington Post editorial board writes.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support is based on security and he needs conflict to survive the various domestic controversies and struggles facing him and his government. Dahlia Sheindlin writes at Foreign Policy.

IRAN

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday designated the head of Iran’s central bank as a global terrorist and imposed sanctions against him, accusing Valiollah Seif of covertly funneling “millions of dollars” to the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group. The designation is separate from the sanctions reinstated last week following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Eileen Sullivan reports at the New York Times.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi today condemned the U.S. decision to impose sanctions on Seif and other Iranians, calling it a destructive measure intended to influence “the will and decision of the remaining signatories” of the nuclear agreement. Reuters reports.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her support for the nuclear agreement today, saying in remarks to Parliament that Britain, France, Germany and other members of the European Union (E.U.) do not believe it is right to cancel the agreement due to ongoing crises and tensions in the Middle East and the world. Frank Jordans reports at the AP.

The E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini met with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday to discuss the future of the deal, after the meeting, Mogherini said that the E.U. had started work on a plan to keep the agreement alive and to protect European businesses from U.S. sanctions on Iran. Patrick Wintour and Jennifer Rankin report at the Guardian.

Zarif and Mogherini also met with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany yesterday, the officials committed their support for the nuclear agreement but were unable to provide the guarantees that Iran seeks on the economy. Parisa Hafezi, John Irish and Robin Emmott report at Reuters.

Mogherini explained that the E.U. seeks a quick and practical solution to salvage the deal, France24 reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban overran the western Afghanistan province of Farah but left early this morning without apparent opposition, the insurgents killed 25 members of the security forces and five civilians, with locals and analysts saying the operation on Farah was intended to show that the Taliban could attack any position at will. Fahim Abed and Taimoor Shah report at the New York Times.

The Taliban have carried out assaults in various locations across Afghanistan, including in Ghazni province. Reuters reports.

U.S. Special Forces have been preparing for an operation against the Islamic State group in Afghanistan’s Mohmand Valley, Michael M. Phillips explains at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (O.P.C.W.) said today that chlorine weapons were likely used in an attack on Feb. 4 in the Syrian neighborhood of Saraqib, which is in the rebel-held province of Idlib. The O.P.C.W. did not say who was responsible for the attack, Reuters reports.

The last rebel-enclave in the Homs province has been captured by Syrian government forces, according to a Syrian security officer, who told state-run television that the forces had “triumphed over terrorism.” The AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 53 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between May 4 and May 10. [Central Command]

HASPEL CONFIRMATION PROCESS

The Intelligence Committee is scheduled to vote on Gina Haspel’s confirmation to be C.I.A. Director today, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has said he expects the full Senate would vote at the end of the week. Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times.

Haspel yesterday won the endorsement of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), in addition to the support of two more Democrats: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) Warner cited a new letter in which Haspel said that the C.I.A. should not have undertaken its post-9/11 antiterrorism program involving torture, Byron Tau reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Haspel’s letter to Warner yesterday claimed that “the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken” and further, that having “learned the hard lessons since 9/11”, Haspel would “refuse to undertake any proposed activity that is contrary to my moral and ethical values.” The Guardian reports.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The Trump administration has removed the White House’s top cyber policy role, eliminating a significant position created during the Obama presidency, with an email sent to National Security Council (N.S.C.) staffers yesterday claiming that the decision is part of an effort to “streamline authority” for the senior directors who lead most N.S.C. teams. President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton is thought to be behind the move, Eric Geller reports at POLITICO.

Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) indicated yesterday evening that they are introducing a bill that would save the top cybersecurity role, although it remains to be seen whether their bill would attract any Republican support. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. government has identified Joshua Adam Schulte as the source behind the leak to WikiLeaks of information on the C.I.A.’s computer hacking arsenal, which marked one of the most significant leaks in C.I.A. history. Shane Harris reports at the Washington Post.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson yesterday rejected an attempt by the former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to have the indictment against him dismissed, the judge wrote that the indictment issued by special counsel Robert Mueller “falls squarely within” his authority and that Manafort was “an obvious person of interest” in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.  Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

Indonesia has seen a string of Islamic State-group linked attacks in the past days, including assaults on churches and police buildings. Ben Otto reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The opening of a new 12-mile bridge has cemented Russia’s hold over Crimea, with Russian President Vladimir Putin driving a large orange construction truck across the bridge – which connects Kerch, on the eastern coast, to the Russian mainland – on Monday. Neil MacFarquhar reports at the New York Times.

President Putin yesterday claimed that the Russia’s new weapons, including an array of new nuclear systems, will ensure the country’s security for decades to come and “ensure a strategic balance for decades,” with the remarks made at a meeting with top military officials in Sochi. The AP reports. 

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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

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).