The Early Edition: May 29, 2018

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

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

Recent diplomatic activity indicates that the planned summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump may go ahead, Kim’s de facto chief of staff Kim Chang-son flew to Singapore – the host of the planned summit – yesterday, Trump spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday and confirmed they would meet before the “expected” U.S.-North Korea summit, and the former spy chief Kim Yong-chol is believed to be headed to the U.S. today following a stop in Beijing. Reuters reports.

Trump confirmed today that Kim Yong-chol is heading to New York for talks about the summit in a message on Twitter. Anna Fifield reports at the Washington Post, providing an overview of the former spy chief’s role in North Korea’s ruling establishment.

“Our United States team has arrived in North Korea to make arrangements for the Summit between Kim Jong Un and myself,” Trump said in a message on Twitter on Sunday night, with three senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the preparatory talks saying that the U.S. advance team includes the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim. Elise Labott, Kevin Liptak and Sophie Tatum report at CNN.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un held an unannounced meeting on Saturday in the truce village of Panmunjom, with Moon saying that Kim reiterated “his commitment to a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The BBC reports.

Moon called for more impromptu talks with North Korea in a meeting with his senior secretaries yesterday, explaining that his meeting with Kim on Saturday showed that the two leaders got in contact “easily” and “without complicated procedures and formalities.” Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith report at Reuters.

Trump and Abe “affirmed the shared imperative of achieving the complement and permanent dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missile programs” in a phone call yesterday, according to a White House statement. The AFP reports.

The White House has decided to defer the implementation of major new sanctions against North Korea amid diplomatic efforts to save the summit. Vivian Salama, Andrew Jeong and Chun Han Wong report at the Wall Street Journal.

“These folks are not going to get rid of all their nuclear weapons,” the former C.I.A. Director Michael Hyden said Sunday in an interview with ABC News, making the comments after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on the same show that he is also convinced that Kim does not want to denuclearize. Kyle Balluck reports at the Hill.

A top expert has warned that denuclearization of North Korea could take up to 15 years, William J. Broad and David E. Sanger report at the New York Times.

Moon’s role as mediator between Washington and Pyongyang has come under intense scrutiny, his diplomatic maneuvers have divided the South Korean government and drawn criticism from conservatives. Michelle Ye Hee Lee provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

North Korea has grown increasingly impatient with Washington’s claim that Kim is desperate for U.S. economic aid, the North Korean leader’s key motivations are improving trade with China and South Korea, improving the security of his nation and gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Eric Talmadge provides an analysis at the AP.

Moon has adopted the North’s position on denuclearization rather than the U.S. position, leaving President Trump open to falling into a trap: lifting sanctions in exchange for promises that would not lead to a complete dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, warning that the summit process “can’t be subcontracted to a Korean President with priorities other than American security.”

IRAN

The European Union (E.U.) is hoping to protect its strategic and economic interests in Iran, following President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, with E.U. foreign policy chief insisting yesterday that the bloc remains united. Raf Casert reports at the Washington Post.

Chinese and Russian state-backed companies are moving to exploit the departure of European firms from Iran, threatening to undermine the Trump administration’s attempt to increase economic pressure on Tehran. Benoit Faucon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

China will host Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June at a regional summit held in the hope of preventing the disruption of joint projects, with the Chinese deputy foreign minister Zhang Hanhui commenting yesterday that “our hope is that China and Iran will have close consultation on the basis of observing the deal and push forward development of bilateral cooperation.” Christian Shepherd reports at Reuters.

Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said yesterday that India will follow U.N.-imposed sanctions but will not follow those sanctions leveled by individual countries, including those restored by the U.S. in the case of Iran. Luis Sanchez reports at the Hill.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani defended the president’s attacks against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential Russian interference in Trump’s presidential campaign, suggesting that the origins of the probe are illegitimate. Giuliani commented on Sunday that “the Comey thing, which is the leak of a confidential memo…is illegal for an FBI official to do. I’m not saying Mueller is illegitimate…. I’m saying the basis on which he was appointed was illegitimate,” Maegan Vazquez reports at CNN.

When asked whether he thought the Mueller probe itself is legitimate Giuliani responded “not anymore,” adding that “I did when I came in, but now I see ‘Spygate’” – a reference to  Trump’s claims last week claims that an F.B.I. informant was planted by the Obama administration within his presidential campaign. Connor O’Brien reports at POLITICO.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Calif.) has dismissed Trump’s “Spygate” comments, remarking on ABC’s “This Week” that, “there is no evidence to support that spy theory.” Connor O’Brien reports at POLITICO.

Mueller investigation is “pointless” and that “there’s hope that it will wind up one day,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters today. Tom Balmforth reports at Reuters.

Trump’s “Spygate” comments last week serve as an example of how Trump uses baseless conspiracy theories to erode trust, comment Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Members of the U.N. have expressed outrage over the appointment of Syria as president of the Conference on Disarmament (C.D.) held in Geneva, the rotation of the chair coming just weeks after a reported attack in which the Syrian authorities are believed to have used chemical agents against civilians. Imogen Foulks reports at the BBC.

Washington’s ambassador in Geneva Robert Wood condemned the appointment, sending a message on Twitter commenting that “Monday, May 28 will be one of the darkest days in the history of the Conference on Disarmament with Syria beginning its four-week presidency.” Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.

“This is no normal presidency, and thus the U.S. will not treat it as such,” Wood said today, adding that the “United States will not be silent” and calling on other countries to “speak out” and send a “very similar and clear message about their abhorrence.” Wood walked out as Syria’s envoy made opening remarks, the AP reports.

A clash between Syrian government troops and their Russian military advisers against Islamic State group militants has left at least four Russians dead and several wounded, the Moscow Defense Ministry announced Sunday. The firefight took place in the eastern Deir al-Zour province after several mobile units of the Islamic State group allegedly attacked a Syrian Army artillery battery, Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.

43 rebels were also killed during the battle, according to the Russian defense ministry, which claimed that “several mobile terrorist groups attacked Syrian government artillery at night,” although the statement did not make clear exactly when the hour-long battle took place. Reuters reports.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said to reporters on Monday, that the withdrawal of non-Syrian forces from the de-escalation zone should be conducted on a “mutual basis” as part of a “two-way street”. Lavrov commented that “the result of the ongoing work should be a situation in which troops of the Syrian armed forces will be stationed alongside the Syrian border with Israel,” Reuters reports.

Israel called yesterday for Iran to be denied any military presence in Syria, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarking in a broadcast that “Our position on Syria is clear…we believe that there is no place for any Iranian military presence, anywhere in Syria” – the comments following Russia’s suggestion that its own and Damascus’ forces alone should control Syrian territory near the Israeli and Jordanian borders. Dan Williams reports at Reuters.

Jordan said yesterday that it was discussing developments in southern Syria with the U.S. and Russia and that all three parties agreed on the need to safeguard the “de-escalation” zone the countries brokered last year and which has been credited with reducing violence in the region. One senior official commented that the three nations “saw eye to eye” on the need to preserve the zone, Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said this morning that the three nations have agreed to hold a meeting in the “de-escalation zone” to discuss the developments. Polina Ivanova reports at Reuters.

A Syrian state-run newspaper reported yesterday that the Syrian administration will continue fighting “terrorists”, despite U.S. warnings regarding a fresh offensive against rebels in the southern Daraa province. The AP reports.

The Syrian army has completed preparations for an upcoming offensive against rebel-held areas in the south-west of the country, a pro-regime non-Syrian commander said today, adding that “the Syrian army will wage all the battles and has now become strong and capable.” The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has separately reported that rebels in the southwestern Deraa area are reinforcing their positions, Laila Bassam and Tom Perry report at Reuters.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 52 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between May 18 and May 24. [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Militants in Gaza fired 28 mortar shells into southern Israel yesterday, the Israeli military said, with the incident taking place against a backdrop of increased tensions and violence along the Israel-Gaza border. Amos Harel, Almog Ben Zikri, Yaniv Kubovich and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

The Israeli military said no one was hurt and that most of the mortar shells were intercepted by its Iron Dome defense system. The Islamic Jihad group was believed to be responsible for the attack with the tacit support of Hamas, who control the Gaza Strip, Aron Heller reports at the AP.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the Palestinian Hamas group responsible and vowed that the military would respond “forcefully” to the heaviest attack fired out of the Gaza Strip since the 50-day war in 2014. Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

Israel has conducted airstrikes against the Islamic Jihad group in the Gaza Strip. Amir Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi reporting at Reuters.

Israel has started work an ocean barrier to “effectively block the possibility of infiltrating into Israel by sea,” the Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement Sunday, adding that this would further thwart Hamas. Al Jazeera reports.

The Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was released from hospital earlier this week and promised to return to work immediately. Reuters reports.

YEMEN

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to require Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to probe whether U.S. troops resorted to torture as part of their interrogation of prisoners in Yemen, in a measure unanimously adopted on Thursday morning. Al Jazeera reports.

Forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition are drawing close to the Yemeni Houthi-held port city Hodeidah, according to a coalition spokesman who commented late yesterday that “Hodeidah is 20 km [12.43 miles] away and operations are continuing,” without specifying whether there are plans for an assault to seize the city. Sarah Dadouch and Mohammed Ghobari report at Reuters.

The pressure on Hodeidah coincides with the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis, according to the Washington Post Editorial Board, explaining that 8 million people are on the brink of famine in Yemen which is also enduring the worst cholera epidemic in history.

LIBYA

Rival Libyan leaders have arrived in Paris for a U.N.-backed conference on a political settlement for the country, with the office of French President Emmanuel Macron saying that the Libyan leaders have agreed in principle to a non-binding accord. Sylvie Corbet and Philippe Sotto report at the AP.

The prospect of progress at the meeting has been met with skepticism by analysts, the AFP reports.

Groups in western Libya have raised concerns that the Paris meeting could bolster the eastern-based commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar. Aidan Lewis reports at Reuters.

The Islamic State group in Libya has big ambitions, while smaller than in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East, the group has mounted deadly attacks across the country and Libya may become a base for regional operations. Borzou Daraghi provides an analysis at The Daily Beast.

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan military has mistakenly killed nine people in eastern Nangarhar province during a raid on a position that was a base for Islamic State group and other militants, officials said yesterday. The AP reports.

Gunmen killed at least three people in western Herat province on Sunday. No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, the AP reports.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

China has criticized the U.S. for deploying two warships in the disputed South China Sea, with two separate statements issued by China’s foreign and defense ministries expressing “firm opposition” to what they described as violations of Chinese sovereignty.   Chun Han Wong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“If anyone gets the natural resources in the Western Philippines Sea, South China Sea, [Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte] will go to war,” according to the Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano, who commented in a speech yesterday that China will cross a “red line” if it unilaterally mines in the South China Sea. Ben Westcott reports at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The expansion of N.A.T.O. forces towards Russia’s borders undermines “security and stability on the continent,” the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said yesterday, following reports that the Polish Defense Ministry has proposed permanent U.S. military presence on Polish territory. Reuters reports.

China has stepped up the development of next generation nuclear weapons, carrying out simulated tests at a level outpacing America. Stephen Chen reports at the South China Morning Post.

Trump has intertwined national security and trade policy to the irritation of U.S. allies and adversaries, according to several sources, who say that the approach has the potential to provoke retaliation. David J. Lynch and Damian Paletta report at the Washington Post.

Trump is surrounded by aides who believe in him personally and are willing to execute his instincts and ideas. Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker provide an analysis at the Washington Post.

Middle Eastern leaders have used financial leverage to influence the Trump administration, their efforts beginning as far back as, or even before, November 2016 when Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner handed out his cellphone number to all sorts of people in Washington. Steven A. Cook provides an analysis at Foreign Policy.

China has been increasing pressure on Taiwan in spite of strong U.S.-Taiwan relations, Katie Hunt provides an analysis at CNN. 

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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).