The Early Edition: May 25, 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.

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

President Trump yesterday canceled the proposed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, citing “open hostility” from Pyongyang as the reason for scrapping the meeting. Michael C. Bender, Vivian Salama and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump made his announcement in a strikingly personal open letter to Kim, in which he pointed to the “tremendous anger” expressed in the North’s recent public statements and expressed the view that “this missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.” Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

The president warned Kim that the U.S. boasts a nuclear weapons arsenal “so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used,” in a move that one White House official has described as an attempt to indicate to Kim “the real balance of power.” David Nakamura, Anna Fifield and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Trump appeared to leave the door open for future negotiations, telling reporters that “if and when Kim Jong-un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting.” Joshua Berlinger and Sophie Jeong report at CNN.

Pyongyang responded by claiming that it remains open to resolving issues with Washington “at any time in any way,” with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan quoted by official Korean Central News Agency (K.C.N.A.) as saying that “we had set in high regards President Trump’s efforts, unprecedented by any other president, to create a historic North Korea-U.S. summit.” David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick, William Mallard, Nobuhiro Kubo and Ben Blanchard report at Reuters.

Kim said that North Korea was prepared to give Trump the “time and opportunity” to reconsider his decision, explaining that “the unilateral cancellation of the summit was unexpected and very regrettable…but we remain unchanged in our willingness to do everything we can for the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and of the humanity.” Choe Sang-Hung reports at the New York Times.

Kim conjectured that Trump may have “lacked the will for the summit or he might not have felt confident,” but that the North has “exerted sincere efforts” for talks that “would mark a meaningful starting point for peace and security in the region and the world.” Foster Klug and Hyung-Jin Kim report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. military is “ready if necessary” to respond to a “foolish or reckless act” by Pyongyang, Trump said in a later statement at the White House, claiming that “our military is the most powerful in the world. We are more ready than we have ever been before.” The Pentagon doubled down on Trump’s comments, claiming that “we are in a boxer stance, we are ready to respond,” Al Jazeera reports.

North Korea claimed yesterday that it had destroyed its Punggye-ri nuclear weapons testing site, setting off explosions to collapse underground tunnels just hours before President Trump canceled the proposed summit, although it remains unclear whether the event marks a significant change in the North’s nuclear capabilities or was merely a media stunt. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post.

North Korea’s state media called the closure of the site part of a process to build “a nuclear-free, peaceful world”, adding that “the dismantling of the nuclear test ground conducted with high-level transparency has clearly attested once again to the proactive and peace-loving efforts of the D.P.R.K. government being made for assuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and over the world.” The AP reports.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in held an emergency meeting with senior security officials yesterday following Trump’s decision, where, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, he stated that “I am very perplexed and it is very regrettable that the North Korea-U.S. summit will not be held on June 12.” Moon allegedly urged Kim and Trump to speak with each other following Trump’s decision, Julia Manchester reports at the Hill.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that “In some ways it’s ‘situation normal.’ The pressure campaign continues,” when asked whether relations with Pyongyang would return to the volatile threats of the past. Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle report at Reuters.

The foreign ministers of the U.S. and South Korea have agreed to continue working towards creating the right conditions for the talks with the North to go ahead, the South’s foreign ministry said in a statement today following a phone call between South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Pompeo yesterday. Christine Kim reports at Reuters.

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed regret that the summit was canceled but added that he respects and supports Trump’s judgment. The AP reports.

South Korean Minister Cho Myoung-gyon commented that North Korea “remains sincere in … making efforts on denuclearization and peace building”, while Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono claimed that while it was “meaningless to hold a summit if it does not bring about progress,” Japan would continue to support the idea of a rescheduled Trump-Kim meeting. Benjamin Haas and Justin McCurry report at the Guardian.

The international community has broadly expressed regret at Trump’s decision, with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres stating that “I am deeply concerned…I urge the parties to continue their dialogue to find the path to the peaceful and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and British Prime Minister Theresa May stating that the U.K. is “disappointed” by the scrapping of the talks. Camila Domonoske and Tanya Ballard Brown report at NPR.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that he hoped Trump’s move “was just a glitch in a process that should be continued”, speaking at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, while Putin said Moscow regretted the cancelation of the proposed summit and said that he hoped it would take place nonetheless. Michael Rose reports at Reuters.

Putin said Kim “did everything he promised in advance,” referencing North Korea’s claim that it had destroyed its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site and adding that “we had very much counted on [a summit] being a significant step in sorting out the situation on the Korean Peninsula and that it would be the beginning of the process of denuclearizing the whole Korean Peninsula.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Singapore, which was set to host the historic summit, said it “regrets” the cancellation, with the country’s foreign ministry sending a message on Twitter stating that it hopes “efforts to find lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula will continue”. Al Jazeera reports.

A senior administration official in the U.S. claimed that Trump’s decision was provoked by “a profound lack of good faith” on the part of North Korea, adding that there had been a series of “broken promises” from Pyongyang, including a recent incident in which the White House sent the deputy chief of staff to Singapore to meet North Korean diplomats ahead of the summit and “The North Koreans didn’t show up. They simply stood us up.” The BBC reports.

The official – Deputy Assistant to the President for Asian Affairs Matt Pottinger – added that Trump dictated “every word” of the open letter to Kim. Adam Rawnsley reports at The Daily Beast.

Pottinger dismissed the idea that North Korea had changed its stance due to U.S. security adviser John Bolton’s comments proposing a “Libyan model” for North Korea,” claiming that North Korean official Kim Gye Gwan’s May 16 statement indicated that both sides were approaching the summit from a different perspective. Pottinger added: “How can North Korea — a few weeks after in an inter-Korean summit — declare that it is moving forward with the goal of complete denuclearization, but object to denuclearization in a statement two weeks later. It’s a head scratcher,” Demetri Sevastopulo, Katrina Manson and Bryan Harris report at the Financial Times.

The U.S. military had not “in any way” changed its posture on the Korean Peninsula following Trump’s cancellation, the Pentagon Joint Staff Director Kenneth McKenzie said, adding that the $700 billion fiscal 2018 budget passed earlier this year “will improve the readiness of the military, including forces that might be called upon to deploy and fight if we had to conduct operations on the Korean Peninsula,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The chance for rapprochement had not been lost, the Head of U.S. Forces Korea Gen. Vincent Brooks told an audience in Seoul, claiming the opportunity “is just delayed. Don’t worry about what happened. . . because it may have been too early to celebrate, it is also too early to quit.” Bryan Harris Song Jung-a and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

Trump wanted to cancel the summit before Kim had a chance to, according to multiple officials, with one senior administration official saying that Bolton and Pompeo have been at odds about the summit since it was first proposed. Courtney Kube, Hallie Jackson, Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker and Peter Alexander report at NBC News.

A report of the demolition of the Punngye-ri nuclear test site is provided by Tim Schwartz and Will Ripley at CNN.

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un fell apart because the two sides “didn’t fully understand what the other was saying in the run-up,” Gerald F. Seib writes at the Wall Street Journal, noting the lack of consensus on the meaning of “denuclearization,” that there was a misreading of each other’s rhetoric over the past weeks, and confusion over national security adviser John Bolton’s reference to the Libyan model of denuclearization.

A feature on the breakdown of the summit, and the conversations and emotions within the Trump administration, is provided by Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey at the Washington Post.

A return to crisis mode is now a possibility following the cancellation of the summit, signs of this were in North Korea’s warning to the U.S. on Wednesday that it should be prepared for nuclear showdown, and in Trump’s letter to Kim yesterday when he warned the North Korean leader of the U.S.’ greater nuclear capability. Matt Spetalnick and Arshad Mohammed provide an analysis at Reuters.

An annotated version of Trump’s letter to Kim is provided by David E. Sanger at the New York Times.

The president’s cancellation of the summit is a “relief,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, stating that Trump realized the danger of the talks being a failure.

Trump lack preparation for the canceled summit and a meeting could have led to Kim driving a bargain that would not have resulted in complete denuclearization, Jon B. Wolfstahl writes at POLITICO Magazine, arguing that, should the president and his team decide to get the summit back on track, they should understand that “nuclear diplomacy takes time and hard work.”

The cancellation is not surprising or necessarily bad news if it means the Trump administration now takes the time to prepare properly, the New York Times editorial board writes, hoping that Trump’s decision amounts to a “hiccup” and saying that there is “still time to get diplomacy back on track.”

Trump’s decision to pull out of the summit sums up his chaotic foreign policy, and the conflicting messages in his letter to Kim reflects the incoherence of his administration’s approach. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The breakdown of the summit was due to a plethora of reasons: including internal administration battles, raised expectations which were spurred by the president, a lack of preparation, a failure to articulate the desired outcome of the talks, and comments by Trump administration officials that suggested support for regime change. Jonathan Allen provides an analysis at NBC News.

The cancellation of the summit marks a diplomatic humiliation for President Trump, The Economist writes.

South Korea, China and Japan are now faced with an uncertain diplomatic reality, with many concerned about an escalation between North Korea and the U.S. and what this would mean for the region. Ben Westcott, Yoko Wakatsuki and Sophie Jeong provide an analysis at CNN.

Trump’s decision to pull out of the summit raises problems for South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his ability to play the role of mediator. Moon invested a lot of effort into brokering the summit but, in doing so, appears to have overstated Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, Kim Tong-Hyung provides an analysis at the AP.  

Moon’s presidential legacy risks being tarnished unless he can get diplomatic efforts between Trump and Kim back on track, Bryan Harris and Song Jung-a write at the Financial Times, noting that critics have accused Moon of naivety in his approach to Pyongyang.

Cancellation of the summit may have strengthened China, giving President Xi Jinping greater influence with North Korea which can then be leveraged against the U.S. on areas of interest, including U.S.-China trade. Jane Perlez provides an analysis at the New York Times.

Kim has grown in stature and gained legitimacy over the past months, analysts have said, claiming that the cancellation of the summit allows North Korea to be seen as the injured party, making it harder for South Korea and China to accept a return to the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” on the Pyongyang regime. Benjamin Haas explains at the Guardian.

An analysis of six key questions now that the summit has been canceled is provided by Emily Tamkin, Elias Groll and Dan De Luce at Foreign Policy.

An explanation of the things the Trump administration got wrong ahead of the planned talks is provided by Ilan Goldenberg at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The White House chief of staff John Kelly and the White House lawyer Emmett Flood attended the two classified meetings yesterday on the F.B.I. use of an informant in the early stages of the Russia investigation. The informant approached at least three Trump campaign advisers who had been in contact with suspected Russian agents, which led the president to claim, without evidence, that the F.B.I. had spied on his campaign, Nicholas Fandos and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

Flood’s presence prompted outrage and concern, fueling the perception that the White House was seeking to learn what was going on in the Russia investigation and links with the Trump campaign. Betsy Woodruff reports at The Daily Beast.

“Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the F.B.I. or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign,” the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Calif.) told reporters yesterday after attending the second classified briefing with Justice Department officials. Jonathan Allen reports at NBC News.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that the classified briefings could speed up the possibility of the president sitting down for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller, Kyle Cheney and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

Trump’s associate and longtime adviser Roger Stone sought information from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about information on then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Stone sent an email to Assange’s acquaintance Randy Credico in September 2016 asking from “confirmation” that Assange had materials considered to be damaging to Clinton, including her role in the Libyan peace deal in 2011 when she was secretary of state. Shelby Holliday and Rob Barry report at the Wall Street Journal.

Mueller’s team have been looking into Stone’s finances, according to sources familiar with the matter, signaling that the finances could be tied to Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion. Sara Murray reports at CNN.

Stone’s emails reveal his ever-changing explanations on his interactions with Assange, which also appear to contradict his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Scott Bixby writes at The Daily Beast.

Mueller’s team appear to be putting pressure on Stone, raising the possibility that he may cooperate with the investigation and spill the president’s secrets. Darren Samuelsohn provides an analysis at POLITICO.

A fact-check of the president’s claims about the Mueller investigation and the F.B.I. informant is provided by Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will meet with Iranian representatives in Vienna today in an attempt to save the agreement two weeks after President Trump took the U.S. out of the agreement. The meeting, held at Iran’s request, marks the first time that China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany will gather since the deal was signed in 2015.  AFP reports.

Iran expects European nations to present a package of economic measures that would compensate for the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, according to a senior Iranian official, telling reporters ahead of the talks that “we expect the package to be given to us by the end of May,” and that Tehran would decide within the coming weeks whether to stay in the accord. Francois Murphy reports at Reuters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that his nation appreciated European efforts to save the nuclear deal in light of the U.S.’ withdrawal and warned of “lamentable consequences” if it the deal was not saved. Michael Rose and Denis Pinchuk report at Reuters.

“I agree that we can talk about Iran’s missile program as well as about the situation in the region and about its nuclear activities beyond 2025,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters, offering support for a French initiative to seek supplemental agreements with Iran aimed at persuading the U.S. to return to the nuclear deal, although he reiterated that making additional accords should not a condition for the survival of the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.). Kathrin Hille and Anne-Sylbaine Chassany report at the Financial Times.

Iran continues to comply with the terms of the nuclear deal but could be faster and more pro-active in facilitating snap inspections, the U.N. atomic watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) said yesterday. Francois Murphy reports at Reuters.

Iran faces growing resistance from within its close regional allies Syria and Iraq, with discontent among Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim community reflected in the electoral victory of nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and many Syrians in the capital Damascus accusing Iran of stoking religious tensions. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions yesterday on nine individuals and firms accused of sourcing jet engines and airplane parts for Iranian airlines previously blacklisted for alleged support of U.S.-designated terror groups. The designation forms part of a broader escalation in Iranian sanctions, Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

From a security perspective, the Trump administration should not seek regime change in Iran, William Hartung comments at CNN, arguing that if the administration is determined nonetheless to pursue that option, the American public should at least be given an indication of the cost.

SYRIA

French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to coordinate efforts with Russia to find a political solution in Syria, speaking at a news conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday. Reuters reports.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) released a statement yesterday saying they had captured a French citizen who is wanted in connection with terrorist activities in France. Reuters reports.

Syria’s state S.A.N.A. media reported that a Syrian military airport was “exposed to a hostile missile attack” yesterday which was repelled by air defense systems. S.A.N.A. did not comment on the origin of the attack, Reuters reports.

A suspected Israeli strike has hit a military base in central Syria which has heavy Lebanese Hezbollah group presence, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today. The AP reports.

A feature on the battle between pro-Syrian government forces and U.S.-backed forces in February is provided by Thomas Gibbons-Neff at the New York Times, offering further details of the fight that led to the deaths of dozens of Russian mercenaries.

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]

NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT

The Senate Armed Services Committee released details yesterday of its $716 billion annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.), which was sent to the Senate floor in a closed-door 25-2 vote. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The bill would prevent Turkey from purchasing Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, thanks to an amendment to the N.D.A.A from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). Shaheen’s office has stated that the amendment is proposed in response to Turkey’s detention of U.S. citizen Andrew Brunson, Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“It is time for Russia to cease its lies and account for its role” in the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger place in 2014, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday, expressing “complete confidence” in the Dutch-led investigation into the incident. Josh Delk reports at the Hill.

A car bombing in the Libyan city of Benghazi has killed at least seven people today, according to a security official, with no group claiming immediate responsibility for the attack. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday unveiled a new disarmament agenda, noting that the “world is as dangerous as it has ever been.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

A company has filed a case in a California court claiming that Facebook’s C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg set up a “malicious and fraudulent scheme” to harvest private user data, making the claims based on internal emails and messages. Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison report at the Guardian. 

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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.