The Early Edition: May 24, 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

North Korea carried out what it claimed to be the demolition of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site today, setting off a series of explosions across three tunnels in the underground site and a number of observation towers in the surrounding area, in an event held in the presence of foreign journalists lasting several hours. The AP reports.

The North Korean senior envoy for U.S. affairs Choe Son Hui today made fresh threats to cancel the proposed summit with President Trump, warning that Pyongyang could “make the U.S. taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined,” and referring to U.S. Vice President Pence as a “political dummy.” Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

North Korea will simply walk away from talks if Washington continues to carry out “unlawful and outrageous acts” damaging to Pyongyang’s “goodwill,” Choe stated, adding that the North “will neither beg the US for dialogue, nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us.” Al Jazeera reports.

Choe singled out Pence for criticism, commenting that Pence had made “unbridled and impudent remarks that North Korea might end like Libya” ­– a reference to Pence’s interview with Fox News on Monday in which he had claimed that “this will only end like the Libyan model ended if [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal.” Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times

“As a person involved in U.S. affairs, I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing from the mouth of the U.S. vice-president,” Choe remarked, warning further that “whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States.” The BBC reports.

Choe made clear that North Korea expects to be treated as an equal rather than a rogue regime: “[Pence] is trying to compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapon state, to Libya that had simply installed a few items of equipment and fiddled around with them.” Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

Choe’s comments come in the context of growing uncertainty as to the likelihood of a summit between the two nations after Trump earlier this week said that there was a “very substantial chance” the summit could be delayed. Benjamin Haas reports at the Guardian.

The Trump administration signaled yesterday that it would want additional high-level talks with North Korea and assurances from Kim Jong-un that he is committed to forgoing his nuclear program ahead of the proposed June summit, with one senior administration official claiming that “we need to have more conversations about what we would be talking about before we know if this is going to be useful.” Elise Labott reports at CNN.

“I told our U.S. colleagues that if you want to solve the problem, now is the time. If you want peace, now is the time. If you want to make history, now is the time,” Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi said during a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday. Lesley Wroughton, David Brunnstrom and David Alexander report at Reuters.

Pompeo said yesterday that the U.S. is prepared to walk away from negotiations with North Korea if upcoming talks on its nuclear weapons program are unsatisfactory, commenting that “a bad deal is not an option…The American people are counting on us to get this right. If the right deal is not on the table, we will respectfully walk away.” Al Jazeera reports.

The Pentagon has made public a damning assessment of Kim’s regime concluding that its primary function is to guarantee “perpetual Kim family rule” at the expense of its people’s well-being, finding that the regime “no longer provides basic goods and services outside the capital and major cities” and relies on ideological intimidation. Barbara Starr reports at CNN.

The White House formally nominated Adm. Harry Harris Jr. to be the administration’s top envoy to South Korea yesterday, withdrawing its previous nomination for Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, to serve as envoy to Australia. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Pompeo’s political investment in reaching a nuclear deal with North Korea has left him out of sync with Trump, Nahal Toosi comments at POLITICO.

President Trump should call off the proposed June 12 summit with Kim, comments Rich Lowry at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that a summit would ultimately serve North Korean, rather than U.S. interests.

Trump’s focus on securing a deal with North Korea may lead to diminished U.S. influence in Asia, where China remains the key player, Michael Fullilove and Hervé Lemahieu comment at Foreign Policy.

IRAN

European leaders have been reaching out to Russia to help preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal following President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement; however, relations between European Union (E.U.) members and Russia have deteriorated over the past year, thereby complicating the efforts. William Horobin, Bojan Pancevski and James Marson report at the Wall Street Journal.

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the nuclear deal and ways to keep it alive. The two leaders are also expected to discuss Syria and Ukraine, the AP reports.

The U.S. is bound to fail “like the famous cat in the Tom and Jerry” cartoon, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday, responding to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and speaking two days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened punitive sanctions against Iran and laid out a list of 12 demands before the U.S. would negotiate a new nuclear deal. Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports at the Guardian.

Khamenei said that Iran would no longer have any dealings with the U.S. and proceeded to set out a list of six conditions for staying in the 2015 deal; the key points relate to European trading and banking relations with Iran and a pledge for the U.K., France and Germany not to seek negotiations on Iran’s regional activities and ballistic missile program. The BBC reports.

“I think we’re still far away from a compromise [on the Iran nuclear deal],” the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said yesterday, making the comments after separate meetings with Pompeo and the national security adviser John Bolton and adding that “Europe is very, very united in its position on the nuclear accord with Iran, and that will not change.” Reuters reports.

Analysts and experts believe that Iran has been operating a secret missile research facility, based on the findings of California-based weapons researchers. Max Fisher explains at the New York Times.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani shifted his position yesterday and said he would “rather” the president sit down for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, adding that a decision would be made within “the next couple weeks.” Josh Dawsey reports at the Washington Post.

Trump issued a tirade against the Russia investigation yesterday and repeated unconfirmed claims that federal investigators used a spy inside his 2016 presidential campaign, saying in a series of messages on Twitter that this was “a major SPY scandal,” which he later dubbed “SPYGATE.” The president’s remarks came after reports that an F.B.I. informant approached several Trump campaign officials, but people familiar with the matter say the source intended to gather information on Russian efforts to hack Democratic emails – not to spy on Trump’s campaign. Eileen Sullivan and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“What I want from [Deputy Attorney General] Rod [Rosenstein], from the F.B.I. and from everybody – we want transparency,” Trump said yesterday, speaking ahead of today’s meeting between senior law enforcement and intelligence leaders and two Republican lawmakers to discuss classified information relating to the early stages of the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation. Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

A bipartisan group of top Senate and House lawmakers will be briefed separately on classified information related to the Russia investigation and the informant’s role in the Trump campaign after today’s meeting between House Republicans Devin Nunes (Calif.), Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and D.O.J., law enforcement and intelligence officials, the D.O.J. has said. Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

White House chief of staff John Kelly will attend both briefings today and the first meeting with Nunes and Gowdy will take place two hours before the bipartisan meeting. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

Rosenstein defended Department of Justice (D.O.J.) and F.B.I. officials as “some of the most patriotic and public-spirited American citizens” after Trump accused the F.B.I. of spying on his campaign. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner received permanent security clearance yesterday, suggesting that he may no longer be a focus of Mueller, who has questioned Kushner on a range of issues, including contacts with foreign officials during the presidential transition and the circumstances surrounding the firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey. Philip Rucker, Carol D. Leonnig, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report at the Washington Post.

The F.B.I. has seized control of a Russian botnet that has infected routers across the world, the malware is linked to the Russian group that hacked into the servers of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 election. Kevin Poulsen reveals at The Daily Beast.

An explanation of how the Mueller investigation could end is provided by Michael S. Schmidt, Charlie Savage, Alicia Parlapiano, Anjali Singhvi and Troy Griggs at the New York Times.

Republicans appear to be constructing a counter-factual narrative rather than meaningfully pursue claims of F.B.I. misconduct, the Washington Post editorial board writes.  

SYRIA

Overnight airstrikes in eastern Syria killed at least 12 pro-government fighters, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which claims that the casualties were all foreign nationals. Both the monitoring group and the Syrian government-run media attributed the strikes to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, although state news agency S.A.N.A. claimed that there were no casualties, Philip Issa reports at the Washington Post.

“Some of our military sites between Albu Kamal and Humeima were exposed at dawn today to aggression launched by U.S. coalition jets,” S.A.N.A. reported, but the U.S. military denied any knowledge of the strikes. U.S. Central command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban commented that “We have no operational reporting of a U.S.-led coalition strike against pro-Syrian regime targets or forces,” Angus McDowall and Hesham Hejali report at Reuters.

A Syrian source close to the government said that the bombardment hit bases manned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards allied with the Syrian regime, while the media unit run by Lebanese Hezbollah group militants said the strikes were near T2 – an energy installation located near the border with Iraq. The AP, Reuters and DPA report.

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

The Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestine is “not finalized” and will be launched “within months,” the U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman said yesterday. The AP reports.

Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said today that he would seek approval for the construction of around 2,5000 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, which could create further obstacles for the prospect of peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Reuters reports.

Action on Gaza is needed to “prevent war,” the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, told the Security Council yesterday, also calling on the Council to condemn “in the strongest possible terms” the recent violence along the Israel-Gaza border, in particular the deaths caused by Israeli gunfire. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Israel has been pressing the U.S. to recognize its claim over the occupied Golan Heights, with the Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz saying the matter was now “topping the agenda” and a U.S. endorsement could come within months. Dan Williams reports at Reuters.

The Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent illness has raised questions about the future of Palestinian politics and what would happen once he is no longer leader. Yolande Knell provides an analysis at the BBC.

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

The Pentagon has disinvited China from today’s major naval exercise in the Rim of the Pacific, the decision follows China’s steady militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea. Zachary Cohen, Barbara Starr and Ben Westcott report at CNN.

China’s defense ministry criticized the Pentagon decision as “unconstructive,” saying in a statement today that the move would not change China’s resolve “to play a role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.” The AP reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers yesterday about mysterious health symptoms experienced by U.S. employees at a consulate in southern China, the incident echoes the still-unexplained symptoms suffered by U.S. diplomats in Cuba. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

“At this point, we have not yet found any reason or clue leading to the situation described the U.S.,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said of the incident at the consulate today, explaining that China has already been conducting a “careful investigation.” Yanan Wang reports at the AP.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The Trump administration claims that it is urging its allies in Europe to impose more stringent sanctions against Russia, arguing that their actions to date trail behind U.S. efforts to clamp down on Moscow’s disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks.  Katrina Manson, Courtney Weaver and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times.

Lawmakers are treating the threat of Russian cyber-attacks insufficiently seriously, argues Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post, citing the fact that only around 40 members attended a classified briefing on election security at Congress earlier this week.

Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg failed to address European concerns about misuse of European citizens’ data, election and referenda interference and allegations of non-compliance with E.U. data security legislation, European Parliament president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (A.L.D.E.) Guy Verhofstadt writes at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen received at least $400,000 by Ukrainian lobbyists to set up a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko which was held last June. According to a senior official, the meeting led Poroschenko to decide to establish a backchannel to the U.S. president. Paul Wood reports at the BBC.

An international team of investigators said today that a Russian military unit was the source of the missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine nearly four years ago, with the findings based on detailed analysis of video and photos. Prosecutors claim that they have presented the findings to Moscow and are yet to receive a response, Mike Corder reports at the Washington Post.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have been pushing back against U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen, saying that not enough has been done to ensure the coalition does not use U.S.-made missiles to kill civilians. Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A federal judge ruled yesterday that President Trump cannot block users on Twitter as it constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. John Herrman and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

A suicide bomber killed at least seven people and injured 16 in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad last night, security officials said. Murtada Faraj reports at the AP.

The U.S. yesterday objected to calls for the U.N. to fund an African force to combat extremists in Africa’s Sahel region, the AP reports.

The State Department announced yesterday that it has ordered two Venezuelan diplomats to leave the U.S., retaliating to Venezuela’s decision to expel two top U.S. diplomats. Reuters reports.

The Pentagon’s top lawyer has been called by the judge in the 9/11 trial at Guantánamo to testify in a case relating to alleged unlawful influence. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The daughter of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal spoke out about her experience yesterday. Yulia and her father were the victims of an attempted assassination in the English city of Salisbury in March, which the U.K. authorities have blamed on Russia, Guy Faulconbridge reports at Reuters.

Legislation proposed by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) that would reimpose U.S. sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders is an appropriate response to the systematic campaign of violence against the country’s Rohingya population, argues Vikram Singh at Foreign Policy. 

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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).