The Early Edition: May 30, 2018

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

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

Top North Korean official Kim Yong-chol is traveling to New York today for talks aimed at salvaging the proposed summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump, with the visit from the former head of North Korean intelligence marking the North’s highest-level mission to the United States in 18 years. Christopher Bodeen and Hyung-Jin Kim report at the Washington Post.

“We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” Trump remarked in a message on Twitter yesterday, further commenting “meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young [sic] Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!” Josh Smith and Matt Spetalnick report at Reuters.

The U.S. is moving on three fronts to ready itself for a potential summit, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set to travel to New York to meet Kim and two separate teams working in the truce location village of Panmunjom and in Singapore respectively on the issues central to the potential summit. Michael R. Gordon, Michael C. Bender and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Senior adviser to the president Kellyanne Conway credited the cancellation letter sent by Trump for getting the “kinetic energy going,” adding in an interview with Fox News that “as the president says, if it doesn’t happen June 12 then it could happen thereafter.” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

Pompeo’s spokesperson commented that the meeting in New York will be the third between Pompeo and Kim, although she added “we’re still finalizing exactly what these meetings will look like.” Pompeo has said that there is a “shared understanding” between the two sides about what they hope to achieve, Al Jazeera reports.

A top U.S. intelligence official has described the visit from Kim as “very significant,” adding that “this is a man who is close to Kim Jong-un…If anybody is going to protect Kim Jong-un, it is Kim Yong-chol.” Bryan Harris, song Jung-a and Demetri Sevastopulo report at the Financial Times.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to confirm whether human rights abuses would feature on the agenda for the meetings with North Korea, despite the publication of a U.S. government report yesterday that detailed Pyongyang’s oversight of a network of prison labor camps. Lesley Wroughton reports at Reuters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit North Korea tomorrow to hold talks with his counterpart Ri Yong Ho, the Russian Foreign Ministry said today, with Lavrov claiming that such talks would help him understand North Korea’s position on the nuclear settlement ahead of a potential summit between Kim and Trump. Maria Kiselyova​​ reports at Reuters.

Trump will also meet Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington on June 7 according to White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, AFP reports.

A new assessment conducted by the C.I.A. concluded that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons — a finding at odds with recent statements by President Trump regarding Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization – although the analysis pointed to the possibility that Kim may consider offering to open a Western hamburger franchise in Pyongyang as a show of goodwill. Courtney Kube, Ken Dilanian and Carol E. Lee report at NBC.

The U.S. government yesterday released an alert with technical details about a series of cyber-attacks which it links to Pyongyang – the so-called “Hidden Cobra” hacking operations dating from at least 2009. The alert did not identify specific victims but it did cite a previous report that blaming the same hacking group to a 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, Jim Finkle reports at Reuters.

New satellite imagery of North Korea’s Pungyye-ri nuclear test site suggests that the site may have been sanitized by the North Koreans before reporters arrived – the imagery of the south entrance obtained by the Middlebury Institute for International Studies showing a heavy truck already at the entrance to the south tunnel at the site when the North began to remove guard structures. Adam Rawnsley reports at the Daily Beast.

Will Trump’s “zig-zag course” to a North Korea summit work? David Ignatius questions at the Washington Post, cautioning that it seems unlikely that Kim will give up the nuclear weapons that serve as the very “bargaining chip that brought him to the door of a meeting with an American president.”

Trump and Kim’s “summit brinkmanship” is considered by Bryan Harris and Demetri Sevastopulo at the Financial Times.

A summary of the Trump administration’s apparent attempts to salvage the June 12 summit is provided by Elias Groll provides at Foreign Policy.

For both Trump and Kim, the summit has become an end in itself, comments David Kirk at The Daily Beast.

Gen. Kim Yong-chol is described as “the ultimate North Korean regime insider” in analysis by David Borger at the Guardian.

Kim Yong-chol’s visit to the U.S. is reminiscent of failed diplomatic efforts in 2000, Hyung-Jin Kim comments at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“We need all the documents before we can decide whether we are going to do an interview [with special counsel Robert Mueller],” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday, demanding that the president’s legal team has the opportunity to review documents related to the use of an F.B.I. source who interacted with Trump campaign officials during the 2016 campaign – which Trump has dubbed “spygate.” Josh Dawsey and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Giuliani said that Mueller’s desire to interview the president indicates that the investigation is drawing to a close. The probe has been looking at Russia interference in the 2016 election and whether the president obstructed justice, leading Trump to lash out at Mueller and law enforcement officials, Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.  

Trump made unsubstantiated allegations that Mueller’s team “will be MEDDLING” in the upcoming midterm elections in order to benefit the Democrats, his message on Twitter constituting the latest public attack on the investigation, but also marking an escalation in rhetoric against what the president calls the “Rigged Witch Hunt.” Maegan Vazquez reports at CNN.

“I am even more convinced that the F.B.I. did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got,” the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said yesterday, referring to the use of an F.B.I. source in the 2016 campaign and a briefing he received last week by Justice Department officials about the F.B.I.’s 2016 counter-intelligence investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

President Trump confronted Attorney General Jeff Sessions in March 2017 and told him he should reverse his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. The incident has drawn the interest of Mueller’s team as it may point to an obstruction of justice if it is found that the president put pressure on Sessions to impede the Russia inquiry, Michael S. Schmidt and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report at the New York Times.

The Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko met with Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lobby him on a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. There are conflicting accounts about how seriously Cohen took Artemenko’s plan but it is likely that the circumstances of their January 2017 meeting is of interest to Mueller’s team, Anna Nemtsova reports at The Daily Beast.

Mueller’s team have made steps toward the sentencing of Richard Pinedo as part of the Russia investigation. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

A breakdown of how the Mueller investigation is likely to wrap up is provided by Nelson W. Cunningham at POLITICO Magazine, noting the high possibility of a constitutional crisis and political tumult.

SYRIA

A roadmap for Syria’s Manbij region may be implemented before the end of the summer, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today, explaining that U.S. and Turkish forces would control the area until a new administration has been formed with the understanding of Ankara and Washington. Reuters reports.

Fighting in Syria’s southwestern Daraa province has complicated Russia-Iran relations due to the area’s proximity to Israel and Jordan. The area has seen a tenuous ceasefire but the prospect of Iranian-backed forces joining an offensive near the border with Israel could inflame tensions and undermine Russia’s ability to stabilize Syria, Raja Abdulrahim and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan said they supported Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in a phone call yesterday, according to the Kremlin. Reuters reports.

The U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock called on the Syrian government and some rebel groups to allow the delivery of aid to opposition-held Idlib province, warning that the situation is “alarming” in the area that is a battleground between rebel and militant factions. Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The U.S. delegation staged a walkout at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament yesterday in protest at Syria’s presidency of the body. Reuters reports.

“The Syrian regime is going nowhere,” Ishaan Tharoor writes at the Washington Post, noting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal tactics have delivered him full control of the country’s major metropolitan centers and pro-Assad forces are advancing on Daraa and Idlib, meaning that the West and the Middle East have to adapt to the reality that Assad will remain in his post.

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

An Egypt-brokered ceasefire has tempered the hostilities between Palestinian militants and Israel on the Israel-Gaza border. Hamas, who control the Gaza Strip, and the Islamic Jihad group launched dozens of rockets and mortars into southern Israel yesterday and overnight, which prompted Israel to respond with tank and air strikes on targets in the occupied territory. Nidal al-Mughrabi reports at Reuters.

Relative calm this morning provides some indication of a ceasefire deal, but it remains unclear whether it would hold. Ruth Eglash reports at the Washington Post.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz denied that a ceasefire deal has been reached with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Israel said it struck 25 more Hamas targets overnight. The AFP reports.

Hamas reported this morning that militant groups in Gaza have agreed to a ceasefire if Israel does the same. Phil Black, Andrew Carey and Abeer Salman report at CNN.

Israeli ministers have made seemingly conflicting statements about the ceasefire, however Israeli defense officials have said they believe the current round of violence in Gaza has come to an end. Haaretz reports in rolling coverage.

The U.S. has called on the U.N. Security Council to convene an emergency session on the “latest attacks on Israel out of the Gaza Strip by Hamas and other militants,” saying in a statement that it expects the meeting to take place this afternoon. Haaretz reports.

Recent Palestinian protests at the Israel-Gaza border were motivated by Gaza’s economic conditions rather than anger at the existence of the state of Israel, Omar Shaban writes at Foreign Policy, highlighting the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, mismanagement by Hamas, political failures by the Palestinian Authority, and heavy Israeli restrictions on the territory.

LIBYA

Libya’s warring political factions reached a preliminary deal yesterday that will see national elections take place in December, in a move headed by French President Emmanuel Macron aimed at accelerating the country’s peace process after seven years of internal conflict. Matthew Dalton and Jared Malsin report at the Wall Street Journal.

Invitees to the meeting held at the Elysee Palace Paris included Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the U.N.-backed unity government in Tripoli, alongside Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control much of eastern Libya and newly elected head of the High Council of State Khalid Mishri. U.N. officials also participated in the meeting along with representatives of 20 countries, Alissa J. Rubin reports at the New York Times.

“The parties have committed to set the constitutional basis for elections and adopt the necessary electoral laws by September 16, 2018, and hold parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10, 2018,” said a joint statement, with al-Sarraj commenting that he was happy with the outcome of the meeting. Al Jazeera reports.

The deal “is a significant and welcome step forward in Libya’s political transition,” the spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General commented, adding that “The UN, led by Special Representative Ghassan Salamé, will continue to implement the United Nations Action Plan, as supported by the Declaration adopted today.” U.N. News Centre reports.

Macron described the deal as a “historic” moment, although experts remain skeptical about the prospects for genuine peace with one analyst commenting that “there is once again just a promise to solve the problems through dialogue and a timeframe that looks quite unrealistic.” Ramy Allahoum provides an analysis at Al Jazeera.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. military killed more than 50 senior Taliban commanders in a strike on a meeting in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell said today. The Taliban dismissed the announcement as “propaganda” and the U.S. struck a “civilian residential area, which had no connection with the Taliban,” Reuters reports.

Afghan security forces today repelled an attack by insurgents on the Interior Ministry in Kabul. According to officials, the seven attackers were killed, one policeman was killed and five were wounded, the AP reports.

Lt. Gen. Austin Miller has been officially nominated by President Trump to be the next commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said yesterday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday that the U.S. would continue “a steady drumbeat” of naval exercises in the South China Sea, making the comments as China has stepped up its militarization in the disputed waters. Ben Westcott reports at CNN.

Mattis yesterday accused China of being “out of step with international law” when explaining his decision to rescind China’s invitation to take part in the 27-nation Rim of Pacific exercise. Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Philippines would be prepared to go to war if its military personnel are harmed in the South China Sea a top security official said today, following criticism that President Rodrigo Duterte has not adequately confronted China for its recent militarization. Reuters reports.

The Philippines quietly protested a Chinese helicopter that flew “dangerously close” to a Filipino rubber boat in the disputed waters, two officials said today. Jim Gomez reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

“We condemn, in the strongest terms, Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and its purported annexation of Crimea,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said at a Security Council meeting yesterday, calling on Russia to return control of the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine and to acknowledge its alleged role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Laura Koran reports at CNN.

The dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was shot dead at his apartment in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev this morning. The head of the Ukrainian police force has indicated that Babchenko’s “professional work and civil position” are being considered as motives for the murder, Andrew Roth reports at the Guardian.

Iran and European powers have made progress in talks aimed at ending the conflict in Yemen, with Tehran allegedly showing willingness to push for a ceasefire and ease the country’s severe humanitarian crisis. Parisa Hafezi and John Irish report at Reuters.

A man killed two police officers and a bystander yesterday in the Belgian city of Liege before being shot in what prosecutors are reportedly investigating as a terrorist attack. The currently unnamed attacker had been in prison since 2003 and was allowed out Monday on a two-day leave, Michael Birnbaum and Quentin Ariès report at the Washington Post.

Nearly 24 detainees at Guantánamo have disappeared from public view since their transfer to a secretive rehabilitation program run by the United Arab Emirates, reportedly held with no indication of a possible release date and with some amongst them having been transferred more than two years ago. Missy Ryan reports at the Washington Post.

Sarah Tinsley and Garrett Marquis have joined the Trump administration’s National Security Council, according to a source, who says the two individuals are closely associated and loyal to national security adviser John Bolton. Kaitlan Collins reports at CNN.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said today that Ankara would go elsewhere if it not able to buy U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, making the comments amid strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey due to differences on a number of issues. Reuters reports.

A State Department report released yesterday said that Myanmar has been “doubling down” on ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya Muslim Minority in Rakhine state and the Christian minority in Kachin state. Gardiner Harris reports 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.