The Early Edition: May 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

President Trump yesterday acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding a proposed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, expressing surprise at the harsher tone coming from Pyongyang while attempting to blame the latest deterioration in relations on China. Michael C. Bender and Jonathan Cheng report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump offered reassurances that the U.S. would not seek regime change in North Korea, commenting that any deal “would be with Kim Jong-un, something where he’d be there, he’d be in his country, he’d be running his country, his country would be very rich, his country would be very industrious.” David Nakamura and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

Trump threatened Kim with the same fate as former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi if the North Korean leader “doesn’t make a deal” on his nuclear weapons program, claiming that “the model, if you look at that model with Gaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him. Now that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely…” Trump’s comments appeared to interpret national security adviser John Bolton’s previous comments regarding a “Libyan model” to refer to the 2011 NATO intervention rather than the 2003 nuclear weapons agreement with Gaddafi, reports Julian Borger at the Guardian.  

North Korea today declined to accept South Korea’s list of journalists to attend the dismantling of the Punngye-ri nuclear weapons test site, casting doubt on Pyongyang’s commitment to reducing tensions. Heekyong Yang reports at Reuters.

South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Baek Tae-hyun said today that Seoul expects North Korea to stick to the agreements struck between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at last month’s summit, stating that “we are just at the starting point and we will not stop or waver as we move forward for peace in the Korean Peninsula.” Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the Washington Post.

A senior adviser to South Korea’s Moon reignited discussions about whether Seoul might give up its military alliance with the U.S. as part of a deal to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, suggesting in an interview with the Atlantic that alliances in general are a “very unnatural state of international relations…for me, the best thing is to really get rid of alliance.” Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal

North Korea’s decision to pull out of high-level talks with South Korea on Wednesday revealed the difficulties for Moon in playing matchmaker between the North and the U.S. in the light of skepticism from both nations that he can be an honest broker. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

China said today that it stands for stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula and for the settlement of the issue through talks, following Trump’s claim that China may be influencing Pyongyang. Michael Martina reports at Reuters.

Andrew Kim, head of the C.I.A’s Korea Mission Center, has been central to the planning of the proposed the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un and has been the subject of intense speculation in the South Korean media. Anna Fifield and Min Joo Kim report at the Washington Post.

Bolton is right to refer to a “Libyan model” as a way forward for North Korea, in that the U.S. wants assurances from North Korea comparable to those given by Libya in 2003: its denuclearization must be “complete, verifiable, and irreversible.” The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board comments.

The chances of the U.S. returning to the “maximum pressure” campaign that brought Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table in the first place are now slim, comments Josh Rogin at the Washington Post, who argues that the administration must set realistic expectations for how to reach the desired outcome.

HASPEL CONFIRMATION PROCESS

The Senate yesterday confirmed Gina Haspel to be the next director of the C.I.A, securing her leadership in a 54-45 vote following a highly contentious confirmation battle, making her the first woman to head the organization. Byron Tau and Nancy A. Youssef report at the Wall Street Journal.

The C.I.A. had launched an unprecedented public relations campaign to strengthen Haspel’s chances and former directors John Brennan and Leon Panetta also leant their support by allegedly contacting at least five of the six Democrats who ultimately voted for Haspel. Shane Harris and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

Shortly before the vote Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) accused the agency and Haspel herself of attempting to conceal the contentious elements of her career, suggesting that “Haspel has been exercising the unprecedented power to personally censor any facts about her that might get in the way of her nomination.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Haspel’s nomination was seen by many at the C.I.A. as the best chance the agency had to avoid having a political partisan brought in as its director, although it remains to be seen how Haspel will get along with Trump. Nicholas Fandos reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump said yesterday that the F.B.I. may have “spied” on his presidential campaign “with an embedded informant,” making the assertion in a message on Twitter without offering evidence to support his claim. Neither the Justice Department nor the F.B.I. have responded to the president’s comments, Sadie Graham reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s Twitter comments form part of an aggressive campaign by the president and his allies against the Russia investigation, with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani saying that the confirmation of an informant could render the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election “completely illegitimate.” Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey report at the Washington Post.

Mueller’s probe has now entered its second year, prompting Trump to disparage the investigation as “the greatest Witch Hunt in American History” in a message on Twitter yesterday. The AFP reports.

Mueller shared an unredacted memo from the Justice Department detailing the scope of his investigation to a federal judge yesterday. The filing comes after Judge T.S. Ellis questioned the authority of Mueller during a hearing on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Manafort’s former son-in-law Jeffrey Yohai has reached a plea agreement which requires him to cooperate with other Justice Department criminal investigations, according to sources with knowledge of the matter, raising the possibility that Yohai may be asked to assist Mueller’s prosecution of Manafort. Nathan Layne reveals at Reuters.  

Congress is likely to have the ultimate decision on Trump’s fate rather than Mueller. Alexander Burns and Charlie Savage explain at the New York Times.

The reports that Mueller guaranteed Trump’s legal team that he would not indict the president has roiled critics, however Mueller’s team probably had good reasons for providing such an assurance. Aaron Blake provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

Giuliani’s comments that Mueller cannot subpoena the president has received strong criticism from legal experts. Alison Frankel provides an analysis at Reuters.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

“There is little evidence of any attempt to minimize casualties on Monday,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said today at a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, referring to the killing of Palestinians by Israeli gunfire at the Gaza border fence and backing calls for an independent, international inquiry. The AP reports.

The residents of Gaza have been “caged in a toxic slum from birth to death,” Zeid said today, adding that the ending the occupation would mean that “violence and security” would “largely disappear.” Reuters reports.

Kuwait has circulated a draft resolution calling on the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israel’s use of force against Palestinian civilians and to demand that Israel “immediately cease its military reprisals, collective punishment and unlawful use of force against civilians.” The draft resolution has drawn strong criticism from Israel’s U.N. ambassador Danny Danon who said it was a proposal to support the war crimes of the militant Palestinian Hamas group against Israel and the residents of Gaza, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“We must prevent other countries from following the U.S. example,” the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said today at a meeting of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (O.I.C.), referring to the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – the opening ceremony of which took place on Monday amid a backdrop of violence. Reuters reports.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi yesterday announced that Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing with Gaza for the entire Muslim holy month of Ramadan, sending a message on Twitter that the decision was made to “alleviate the burdens of the brothers in the Gaza Strip.” Ashraf Sweilam and Fares Akram report at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestine faces even more challenges, the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to relocate its embassy has upset relations with Arab nations, who would have influence in any peace process. Felicia Schwartz, Dov Lieber and Margherita Stancati report at the Wall Street Journal.

Washington’s discourse on the Palestinians has changed over the years, language relating to the Israeli occupation has been steadily erased from the narrative and there has been historical and political amnesia regarding the displacement of Palestinians. Khaled Elgindy writes at Foreign Policy, arguing that greater honesty is necessary if there are to be any solutions.

IRAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will set out a plan next week to build a global “coalition” against Iran and its “destabilizing activities,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said yesterday, which comes following the decision by Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The AFP reports.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have been taking steps to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Earlier this week European Union (E.U.) leaders devised a plan to maintain European business ties with Iran, however the bloc faces difficulties trying to maintain the deal without worsening trade relations with Washington, Laurence Norman reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“We should know that the effects of the announced American sanctions will not remain without consequences,” the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday, referring to sanctions reinstated against Iran which could impact European companies. Barbara Surk reports at the New York Times.

Juncker announced that the E.U. would use a “blocking statute” process to neutralize the “extraterritorial effects of U.S. sanctions in the E.U.,” but despite these efforts, there are signs that the Iran nuclear deal will not survive the impact of U.S. sanctions as some European companies have already stopped commercial activity in Iran. Patrick Wintour and Daniel Boffey report at the Guardian.

SYRIA

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid a surprise visit to Russia yesterday and was told by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia expected “foreign armed forces” to pull out of Syria as a peace process began, although it was not immediately apparent which troops Putin was referring to. Andrew E. Kramer reports at the New York Times.

France said today that it had frozen the assets of three people and nine companies suspected of involvement in the development of chemical weapons in Syria, with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian claiming that the decision was leveled at networks suspected of helping Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, although the actual identities of the targets were not disclosed. Sudip Kar-Gupta reports at Reuters.

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]

N.A.T.O.

The N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg thanked Trump for his leadership on defense spending, making the comments to reporters after the leaders met at the White House yesterday. Eli Okun reports at POLITICO.

Countries that don’t fully contribute to N.A.T.O. will be “dealt with,” Trump said yesterday, singling out Germany as not contributing enough while also being “a very big beneficiary.” James Oliphant and Lisa Lambert report at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The former Russian spy Sergei Skripal has been discharged from hospital. Skripal was exposed to the Novichok nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in early March, prompting a strong response from the U.K. government, the BBC reports.

The U.K. government may double its Afghanistan troop deployment following calls from President Trump, with a Ministry of Defense spokesperson saying that the U.K. contribution is “under constant review.” Ewen MacAskill reports at the Guardian.

The Polish President Andrzej Duda yesterday called for the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops to eastern Ukraine and along the Russia-Ukraine border, the AP reports.

The Islamic State group’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has all but disappeared, however its reach and ability to carry out violence across the world still remains potent and it may re-emerge in a different form. Yaroslav Trofimov explains at the Wall Street Journal.

The power of the Shi’ite Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has grown after the recent Iraqi elections posing problems for the Trump administration’s plans for Iraq. Helene Cooper and Gardiner Harris explain 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

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).