The Early Edition: May 22, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korean President Moon Jae-is scheduled to meet President Trump today in Washington, with the fate of the proposed June 12 summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Moon’s own status as peacemaker, in the balance. Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Moon has staked his presidency on the peace efforts and the White House visit represents a crucial opportunity to soothe Trump’s anxieties, leading one C.I.A. official to comment that “Moon has to come in as assuager-in-chief and massage the situation between Trump and Kim.” David Nakamura reports at the Washington Post.

South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong has stated that there is a “99.9 percent” chance of the summit going ahead, playing down recent reports that Trump has become apprehensive about the prospects of a meeting claiming that “We have perceived none of that.” Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

“It increasingly looks like the Moon administration overstated North Korea’s willingness to deal. Moon will probably get an earful over that,” one expert has commented, although a Blue House official has remarked that nonetheless, Moon will “likely tell President Trump what to expect and what not to expect from Kim.” AFP reports.

Many in South Korea have leveled blame for the problems in the diplomatic process at U.S. security adviser John Bolton with former Unification Minister Chung Dong-young commenting that “There are several land mines on the way to the summit…One of those land mines just exploded: John Bolton.” Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

Around 24 journalists from both Western and Chinese news outlets arrived at the North Korean city of Wonsan yesterday to witness the closure of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, an indication that the closure will go ahead despite diplomatic wavering. Martin Quinn Pollard reports at Reuters.

A number of South Korean journalists were excluded from the group, following a decision from Pyongyang to cut off high-level contact with Seoul in light of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises last week. The AP reports.

Experts remain divided over whether the demolition of the nuclear test site will in fact leave it useless, with one commentator expressing that “frankly a nuclear test site can be easily reassembled.” AFP reports.

The U.S.S. Milius – one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced guided missile destroyers – arrived at the Japanese Naval Base Yokosuka today, in a move aiming to reinforce defences against potential ballistic missile attacks by North Korea, raising the total number of U.S. ships based at Yokosuka to 13. Tim Kelley reports at Reuters.

The White House military office has minted a commemorative coin in advance of the June 12 Singapore summit, canonized on the coin as “peace talks” with “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un. John Borger reports at the Guardian.

Vice President Mike Pence has warned North Korea’s Kim Jong-un not to “play” President Trump should next month’s summit go ahead, claiming in an interview with Fox News that such a maneuver would be a “great mistake” and that there is “no question” that Trump could walk away from the summit. The BBC reports.

“There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Pence remarked yesterday. Sophie Tatum and James Griffiths report at CNN.

The U.S. intelligence community is exploring the possibility of acquiring or developing new means of protecting its communication channels prior to the proposed summit between Trump and Kim, with the former head of the National Security Agency claiming that “North Korea’s cyber operations should be a part of the conversation.” Jenna McLaughlin reports at CNN.

Trump yesterday urged China to maintain a secure border with North Korea, in a message on Twitter. Susan Harvey reports at Reuters.

North Korean state media has struck an increasingly bellicose tone over the past week, issuing three strongly-worded commentaries criticizing Seoul and Washington for carrying out joint military maneuvers. Eric Talmadge reports at the Washington Post.

An internal policy document from May 2017 indicates that the Pentagon has embraced a policy of destroying enemy nuclear missiles before they launch, in an effort that appears to include executing cyberattacks against missile control systems. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast, which takes the view that the policy is aimed at North Korea and may serve as a fallback option should the upcoming summit fail.

South Korean ambassador to the United States Cho Yoon Je argues that the current peace process on the Korean Peninsula offers unprecedented opportunities, despite growing skepticism that North Korea is up to old tricks, commenting in the Washington Post.

Moon and Trump are polar opposites, comments Andrew Restuccia at POLITICO, but the importance of the proposed U.S.-North Korean summit to both leaders means that their political fortunes are now intertwined.

IRAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out the Trump administration’s Iran policy yesterday in a speech that came a few weeks after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Pompeo laid down a list of 12 demands for a new agreement with Iran, which would require a wholescale change to Iran’s activities in the region and a stop to all uranium enrichment. Julian Borger and Heather Stewart report at the Guardian.

“We will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime,” Pompeo vowed, adding that it will “end up being the strongest sanctions in history when we are complete.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“Every country” would have to participate in the tough new U.S. sanctions against Iran, Pompeo said, warning European leaders – who have taken steps to try and preserve the 2015 deal – that “they know where we stand.” Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

“Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East,” Pompeo said, explaining that the State Department would work with the Defense Department and regional allies to “deter Iranian aggression” and also warning that the “Iranian regime should know that this is just the beginning.” Carol Morello reports at the Washington Post.

“Who are you to decide for Iran and the world?” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday in response to Pompeo’s demands, according to Iran’s I.L.N.A. news agency, while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced Washington’s “sham” diplomatic efforts. Al Jazeera reports.

The E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini also criticized the U.S. for failing to recognize that there was “no alternative” to the 2015 agreement. The BBC reports.

“The people of Iran … will deliver a strong punch to the mouth of the American Secretary of State and anyone who backs them,” the senior Iranian military commander Ismail Kowsari said today, denouncing the U.S. for its demand for Iran to limit the range of its ballistic missiles. Reuters reports.

The U.A.E.’s Ministry of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, welcomed Pompeo’s speech in a message on Twitter, saying that it was “the correct path” to unite efforts against Iranian “incursions and expansionism.” Reuters reports.

 “We are going to take steps to address Iran’s malign influence in the region,” the Defense Department spokesperson Rob Manning told reporters yesterday after Pompeo delivered his speech, suggesting a more aggressive military posture toward Tehran. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that he would meet with Pompeo tomorrow to discuss the U.S. approach to Iran’s nuclear program, saying that Germany does not “see any better alternative at present” to the 2015 deal. The AP reports.

The U.S.’ Iran plan has been met with skepticism by analysts, some have called the demands “completely unrealistic,” while others have warned that Pompeo’s speech would be seen as a means to achieve “regime change.” Zaheena Rasheed provides an analysis at Al Jazeera, situating the new U.S. strategy within the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and recent developments.

The U.S. strategy on Iran “is a wish list built on a pipe dream,” Jon Wolfstahl and Julie Smith write at Foreign Policy, arguing that the Trump administration has no plan to implement the 12 demands.

Tough U.S. sanctions could lead to “an increasingly angry Iranian public” who would force the hand of the mullahs in Iran, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, praising Pompeo’s approach for pushing back against Iran’s expansionism in the region.

Pompeo’s “belligerent speech” was not a strategy and may, in fact, lead to outright confrontation. Carol Giacomo writes at the New York Times.

The Trump administration’s strategy left many questions unanswered, he did not explain how the U.S. would work with Europe, did not mention Russia or China – who are both signatories to the 2015 deal – and did not set out how the U.S. could achieve its goals on Iran’s regional activities. Josh Rogin writes at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump and the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) yesterday reached an agreement to expand Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s investigation of claims of F.B.I. wrongdoing to include “any irregularities” in the Russia investigations, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement, following claims by Trump allies and some Republicans that the F.B.I. acted inappropriately in their counterintelligence investigation of links between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Katie Bo Williams and Jordan Fabian report at the Hill.

D.O.J. and F.B.I. officials also agreed to review classified information relating to the Russia investigation with the White House chief of staff John Kelly and top lawmakers. Yesterday’s meeting – which was attended by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, and others – has, at least for now, avoided potential confrontations between the White House, D.O.J. and Republican congressional leaders, Sadie Gurman and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

The meeting came a day after the D.O.J. asked Horowitz to investigate Trump’s claim that an F.B.I. source infiltrated his presidential campaign for political purposes, the source has been identified as Stefan A. Halper. Matt Zapotosky, Seung Min Kim, Carol D. Leonnig and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

An explanation of Stefan A. Halper’s connections to the intelligence services is provided by Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig and Shane Harris at the Washington Post.

The Trump team have embarked on an aggressive strategy to contain and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, with the latest attacks on the D.O.J. and F.B.I. resulting in an extraordinary meeting that allowed congressional Republicans to view classified information. Peter Baker explains at the New York Times.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) yesterday called on the D.O.J. to provide details of communications between Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr and former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Steele was the author of a dossier that alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia, Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

Trump “inched further toward breaching an established constraint on executive power” when he made public demands of the D.O.J., Charlie Savage writes at the New York Times, providing an analysis of the president’s actions and comments on the Russia investigations.

The president’s only interest is protecting himself, and Trump and his allies have no qualms undermining institutions in the process. The New York Times editorial board writes.

SYRIA

The Syrian government claimed yesterday that the capital of Damascus and its surrounding suburbs are entirely free of rebel fighters for the first time in seven years, following an agreement from fighters from the Islamic State group to leave the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk and the neighboring town of Hajar al-Aswad. Hwaida Saad reports at the New York Times.

Pro-Syrian government forces have been battling for weeks to recover the two territories, and the outcome leaves President Bashar al-Assad’s administration in its strongest position since the early days of the war. Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington report at Reuters.

Iranian officials have vowed to stay on in Syria supporting the administration for as long as needed, setting the stage for a potential conflict as Washington prepares to increase pressure on Tehran. Zeina Karam reports at the Washington Post.

Israel used F-35 stealth fighters to strike Iranian positions in Syria earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said today, explaining that Iran fired 32 rockets at Israel and, in response, Israel was the first country in the world to use F-35 stealth fighters to carry out an “operational attack.” Yaniv Kubovich reports at Haaretz.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 66 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between May 11 and May 17. [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told reporters yesterday that he had submitted a “referral” for the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into alleged Israeli “crimes” committed against the Palestinian people, including Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the recent violence in the Gaza Strip. Mike Corder reports at the AP.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry dismissed the Palestinian referral as “absurd,” the AP reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be careful about tying himself too closely to the Trump administration, Trump’s predecessor may not be willing to embrace Israel in such a partisan way and Israel’s support for the U.S. position may not be in its long-term interests. Shalom Lipner writes at POLITICO Magazine.

YEMEN

Yemeni officials say shells fired early today by the country’s Shi’ite rebels in the central province of Marib have killed at least five civilians, and left at least 20 wounded. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the Washington Post.

“Iran-backed Houthi launched a Katyusha missile targeting a crowded popular market in the city center” the S.A.B.A. news agency reported. Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed el Sherif report at Reuters.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg will today hold a meeting with European officials in Brussels, where he is expected apologize to Facebook’s European users for the firm’s failure to prevent the misuse of people’s data, and additionally for the spread of fake news during a series of European elections over the past year and a half. Mark Scott reports at POLITICO.

Zuckerberg is expected to say that “whether it’s fake news, foreign interference in elections or developers misusing people’s information, we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibilities…That was a mistake, and I’m sorry.” The language closely mirrors Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last month, reports Sheera Frankel at the New York Times.

The meeting comes at a crucial time for privacy law in Europe and Zuckerberg is likely to face tough questioning. Ivana Kottasová comments at CNN.

Last week’s planned briefing for Congress on election security has been rescheduled for this morning and will now be classified, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.  Top U.S. officials are expected to brief lawmakers behind closed doors on current threats to the election process and efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to assist state officials in securing their digital voting assets from potential hacks.

VENEZUELA

President Trump yesterday called on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to “restore democracy” to his country after he was re-elected at the weekend in a vote that was widely condemned. Reuters reports.

Trump issued an executive order imposing new sanctions against Venezuela yesterday, Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza denounced the U.S. sanctions as “madness, barbaric, and in absolute contradiction to international law.” Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Trump fundraiser Elliot Broidy cultivated relations with the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. and led a secret campaign, along with the U.A.E. political adviser George Nader, to set up a backchannel between the princes and the president in exchange for lucrative contracts from the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. Desmond Butler and Tom LoBianco reveal at the AP.

At least 14 police officers have been killed by a Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s eastern Ghazni province, Afghan officials said today, which was the latest in a spate of attacks across the country, including in Kandahar and eastern Paktia provinces. The Taliban also issued a statement today warning residents in the capital of Kabul to avoid military and intelligence centers as they planned to attack them, the AP reports.

The worst clashes of the year so far have broken out between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, officials said yesterday. The AP reports.

“The United States unequivocally condemns Russia’s occupation on Georgian soil,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, referring to the Russian troops still present in the South Ossetia region following the 2008 war. Reuters reports.

President Trump’s use of mobile phones has raised concerns that he may be exposed to hacking or surveillance. Eliana Johnson, Emily Stephenson and Daniel Lippman report at POLITICO.

Vietnam yesterday demanded that China cease militarization of disputed territory in the South China Sea and that it respects Vietnam’s sovereignty, responding to the landing of a Chinese heavy bomber on the Paracel Islands. Reuters reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has criticized the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group for its status as the most heavily armed group in Lebanon, and urged the militant group to halt military activities both domestically and abroad, including in Syria.  Edith M. Lederer reports at the Washington Post. 

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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).