The Early Edition: May 31, 2018

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

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began two days of high-level talks with senior North Korean official Kim Yong-chol last night, as the Trump administration tries to ascertain whether there is sufficient common ground to proceed with a summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore next month. Michael R. Gordon and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim and Pompeo – who traveled from Washington to meet Kim –met over an hour-and-a-half dinner, in advance of what the White House has described as a “day full of meetings.” Josh Lederman, Matthew Lee and Christopher Bodeen report at AP News.

A second meeting took place at an island resort in Singapore yesterday between one of Kim’s top aides and his American counterpart with the sole aim of sorting logistics for the upcoming summit. The meeting was shrouded in secrecy: security guards blocked journalists from the premises and the White House and the State Department declined to confirm even mundane details, John Hudson and Michelle Ye Hee Lee report at the Washington Post.

A third meeting has been taking place since Sunday in the Panmunjom truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (D.M.Z.) that separates the two Koreas. North Korean vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui has been in talks with an American delegation led by U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, with the diplomats and technical experts in attendance likely working out an agenda for a summit between Trump and Kim. Motoko Rich reports at the New York Times.

“So far the readouts from these meetings have been positive and we’ll continue to move forward in them,” White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of the D.M.Z. meeting in a briefing, adding that “we’re going to continue to shoot for the June 12th and expect to do that,” in reference to the original date for the proposed summit between Trump and Kim. Steve Holland reports at Reuters.

A senior South Korean official has warned of a gulf between the U.S. and North Korean positions on denuclearization, with the U.S. pushing for “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization as soon as possible and the North favoring a slower process involving staged concessions from both parties. Andrew Jeong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

A senior U.S. state department official remarked yesterday that North Korea will have to lay out a disarmament plan in the next few days if the planned June 12 summit is to go ahead, adding that “I think we are looking for something historic…I think we’re looking for something that has never been done before,” and that in return the U.S. would offer “the security guarantees they feel they need.” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho today in Pyongyang, with Russia’s Foreign Ministry claiming that the two parties would discuss bilateral issues as well as the broader situation on the Korean Peninsula. The AP reports.

Lavrov has met with Kim during his visit today and invited him to Russia, saying “come to Russia, we’ll be very happy to see you,” in remarks released by the Russian foreign ministry. The meeting marks the first reported between the head of the reclusive state and a Russian official, AFP reports.

Former Japanese Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Hitoshi Tanaka has warned that Trump’s approach to peace talks carries a high risk of “disastrous” results, and having highlighted the  importance of Confucianism in Asia, claimed of the U.S.’  attempt to use its substantial power for leverage that “that kind of style could backfire in Asia.” Tanaka led breakthrough negotiations with the previous North Korean regime under Kim Jong-il, Daniel Hurst reports at the Guardian.

Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to South Korea  Adm. Harry Harris warned that North Korea remains the U.S.’ most immediate threat, remarking that “a nuclear-capable North Korea with missiles that can reach the United States is unacceptable” at a ceremony yesterday in which he handed over leadership of U.S. Pacific Command to Adm. Philip Davidson. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The face-to-face encounters with North Korean officials have served as valuable intelligence gathering opportunities for the U.S., helping to shape the Trump administration’s understanding of Kim and guide strategy for future talks, Zachary Cohen, Barbara Starr and Jenna McLaughlin report at CNN.

A summary of the three parallel sets of U.S.-North Korean talks is provided by Hyung-Jin Kim at the Washington Post.

A profile of former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong-chol is provided by Jamie Tarabay at CNN.

There are a number of potential options for a nuclear deal between the U.S. and North Korea,  Eric Talmadge explains at the Washington Post, citing the handover of weapons; a cap and freeze on weapon production; and a phased route to total denuclearization as potential roadmaps available to the parties.

The competing interests of China, Russia, Japan and South Korea may upset Trump’s hopes of a straightforward summit with Kim, Simon Tisdall comments at the Guardian.

Denuclearization of North Korea will be a complex and arduous process, experts have warned, many doubting that the process can be accomplished all at once. David Welna reports at NPR.

The Trump administration’s negotiating tactics have become a major hindrance to non-proliferation, Doug Bandow comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that Kim will not be duped like former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE

The dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko revealed yesterday at a news conference that he had staged his own death, the shocking twist coming a day after Babchenko was reportedly killed in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Babchenko explained that he faked his death as part of an operation with the Ukrainian security services in order to foil a real Russian plot against his life, leading the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to congratulate his country’s security services for countering “Russian aggression,” Amie Ferris-Rotman reporting at the Washington Post.

The Russian foreign ministry accused Ukraine of using Babchenko’s story as propaganda, Reuters reports.

The staged death is “no laughing matter,” while Russia may have posed a genuine threat to Babchenko, the Ukrainian authorities may have done more harm than good by providing Russia a “Babchenko defense” against any response to future reports and photographs of Russia-linked atrocities. Shaun Walker provides an analysis at the Guardian.

Russia’s extraterritorial murder and intimidation of Kremlin critics has come under the spotlight following the Babchenko incident, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, adding that “more needs to be done to expose and stop Russian Murder Inc.”

“The Kremlin will seize on this official deceit to show the lengths to which its enemies will go to tarnish Russia,” the New York Times editorial board writes, lamenting the implications of the fake death.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former acting F.B.I. Director Andrew McCabe has given special counsel Robert Mueller a memo on a conversation at the Justice Department last May which provides further context and details on the firing of the former F.B.I. Director James Comey, according to several sources familiar with the matter. The memo could form part of Mueller’s investigation into whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice by impeding the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt report at the New York Times.

Trump said he wished that he had not picked Jeff Sessions to be his Attorney General in a message on Twitter yesterday, referring to comments by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to the effect that it was understandably frustrating for the president that Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. Mel Leonor reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said yesterday that the president would not fire Sessions before the Russia investigation is over. Eileen Sullivan reports at the New York Times.

Rep. Gowdy has offered a robust defense of the F.B.I. investigation into Trump campaign links and Russia in 2016 and has pushed back against Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that the F.B.I. implanted a “spy,” the Washington Post editorial board writes, commending Gowdy – who was briefed by Justice Department officials on the investigation last week – for defending law enforcement agencies, unlike many of his Republican colleagues.

AFGHANISTAN

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for an attack on Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry in Kabul yesterday which was repelled by Afghan forces. However, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, cast doubt on the Islamic State group claim and said U.S. forces “believe it was a Taliban-Haqqani attack, but we’re still developing that information.” Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

Gen. Nicholson said yesterday that the Taliban have held secret meetings with Afghan officials to discuss a ceasefire, adding that other nations have been involved, and making the comments following a proposal in February by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s for peace talks with the Taliban. The BBC reports.

Gen. Nicholson described the situation as “talking and fighting” and offered a comparison with the decades-long civil war in Colombia that culminated in a 2016 peace agreement. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

Dozens of prisoners held by the Taliban in Helmand province have been freed this morning, an Afghan military spokesperson has said. Separately, a governor in Helmand said that a suicide car bomber wounded 6 people in an attack, the AP reports.

SYRIA

“The Americans should leave. Somehow they’re going to leave,” the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with Russia’s state R.T. broadcaster, which was aired today, adding that his government had “started now opening doors for negotiations” with the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) and warned that if the S.D.F. do not withdraw, his forces would liberate areas held by them “by force.” The AFP reports.

Assad said in the interview that his country was improving air defense to stop Israeli airstrikes, and also denied that Iranian troops are in Syria, saying there are only Iranian officers working with the Syrian army. Haaretz and Reuters report.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is in Russia to discuss the presence of Iran-backed forces in Syria amid reports that Israel and Russia have been negotiating a deal to push Iranian proxies away from the Syria-Israel border. F. Brinley Bruton, Paul Goldman and Lawahez Jabari report at NBC News.

“We don’t have any agreements yet with the government of Turkey,” the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement yesterday, denying reports that the U.S. and Turkey have agreed on a deal for a roadmap for the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia to withdraw from Syria’s Manbij region. Turkey mounted an offensive against Y.P.G. in northern Syria earlier this year as it deems them to be a terrorist group, and has since threatened to expand its offensive to Manbij where U.S. troops are present, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Eve Toksabay report at Reuters.

The U.S.-backed campaign to defeat the Islamic State group in eastern Syria has been reinvigorated over the past month, with momentum gathering against the militants in the Euphrates River Valley area and along the Iraq-Syria border. However, significant threats remain – particularly for the long term security and stability of the area, Eric Schmitt explains at the New York Times.

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

The Palestinian Hamas militant group declared a unilateral cease-fire with Israel yesterday, following a day of intense shelling from the Palestinian territory Gaza and retaliatory strikes that raised concerns of an imminent wider conflict. Israel has denied agreeing to any official cease-fire, but indicated it would only act in retaliation, Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

Israeli Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz has claimed that “we are not conducting negotiations,” in an apparent reference to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group.  Yaniv Kubovich, Noa Landau and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented that Israel’s military had delivered the “harshest blow” in years to Gaza militants, remarking that “Since yesterday, the army has responded forcefully to fire from the Gaza Strip with attacks against dozens of targets of terrorist organizations.” AFP reports.

U.N. Mideast envoy Nikolay Mladenov told an emergency Security Council meeting yesterday that the latest escalation in Gaza serves as a warning of “how close to the brink of war we are every day,” claiming that the international community should “unequivocally condemn” the shelling carried out by Hamas. Edith M. Lederer reports at the Washington Post.

The situation remains volatile despite the cease-fire, Josef Federman reports at the Washington Post, noting that Tuesday’s fighting marks the heaviest since the 2014 war and warning that while both sides appeared to have accomplished short-term goals, the issues that underpin the conflict remain unresolved.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has issued an ultimatum to the U.N: the Human Rights Council must be reformed such that it relaxes its criticism of Israel or it will face an American walkout. Colum Lynch reports at Foreign Policy.

IRAN

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday imposed sanctions on Iranian groups and officials, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying in a statement that his department “is taking action to hold the Iranian regime accountable for ongoing human rights abuses, censorship, and other despicable acts it commits against its own citizens.” Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The former chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Tamir Pardo, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the military an order in 2011 to prepare to attack Iran within 15 days, adding in remarks that were released today that the order was not given “for the sake of a drill.” Ilan Ben Zion reports at the AP.

A top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran should resume its uranium enrichment in comments that were quoted by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, making the comments following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal. The AP reports.

“We encourage you to tweet, and write op-eds on this new strategy,” the White House communications aide Kelly Sadler sent in a May 22 email to a list of foreign policy “influencers” about the Trump administration’s Iran strategy and other initiatives. Sadler did not send the email as a blind-copy, and recipients included former Obama administration and Hillary Clinton campaign officials who were left bemused, Annie Karni reports at POLITICO.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

China today brandished U.S. remarks that it has been militarizing the South China Sea as “ridiculous,” with the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson saying that U.S. military presence in the disputed waters “is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined.” Reuters reports.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang released a statement today calling for non-militarization in the South China Sea and agreed to strengthen maritime safety and defense cooperation. The AP reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Islamic State group said that the man who carried out an attack in the Belgium city of Liege this week was a “soldier of the caliphate,” in a claim made by its Aamaq news agency. The AP reports.

Lithuania and Romania violated the rights of al-Qaeda terror suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashri by allowing the C.I.A. to torture them at “black sites” in their country, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled. The BBC reports.

Clashes have escalated in Libya’s coastal city of Derna, the U.N. humanitarian office said today, adding that the self-styled Libyan National Army – which is commanded by Gen. Khalifa Hatfar – has made significant advances through indiscriminate shelling. Tom Miles reports at Reuters.

Google’s A.I. contract with the Pentagon has sparked an existential crisis for the search giant, internal debates have gripped the company over the moral implications of working on warfare technology. Scott Shane, Cade Metz and Daisuke Wakabayashi report at the New York Times.

The “U.S. Pacific Command” has been renamed to the “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command” in recognition of “the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday. Luis Sanchez reports at the Hill.

The U.S. has boosted its relations with Taiwan amid ongoing tensions over China-Taiwan relations. Chris Horton reports at the New York Times.

President Trump has “largely written the U.S. out of the Middle East script,” David Gardner writes at the Financial Times, noting Trump’s muddled approach to Iran, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine, and Russia’s increased influence in the region. 

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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.