The Early Edition: June 1, 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 Gen. Kim Yong-chol is due to travel to the White House today to meet with President Trump, following two days of meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a trip that will require a special waiver as Kim remains subject to U.S. sanctions. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Trump said that he expects Kim Yong-chol to deliver a “very positive” letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un today, while Pompeo asserted that “real progress” has been made in his meetings with Kim Yong-chol towards establishing the conditions for a productive summit between the two leaders. Michael R. Gordon and Michael C. Bender report at the Wall Street Journal.

Pompeo yesterday described the “expected” summit as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course for the world,” speaking after formal talks with Kim. Pompeo indicated that the summit was likely to be reinstated following Trump’s cancellation last week, Carol Morello and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

Pompeo indicated that he believes North Korea may be on the brink of a “strategic shift” regarding denuclearization, telling reporters that “it would be nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste.” Louis Nelson reports at POLITICO.

The meaning of denuclearization remains an issue between the two nations, although Pompeo claimed that he has been “very clear” about the U.S. goal of “complete, verifiable, irreversible” denuclearization in return for a “brighter path” for North Korea. Yesterday’s meeting ended roughly two hours earlier than originally scheduled, but Pompeo asserted that all items on the agenda had been covered, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump said yesterday that his meeting with Kim will “hopefully” happen on June 12, but left open the possibility for no meeting occurring at all, remarking “we’ll see, and hopefully we’ll have a meeting on the 12th; that’s going along very well, but I want it to be meaningful,” making the comments before boarding Air Force One. Rebecca Morin reports at the POLITICO.

Trump admitted yesterday that it may take more than a single meeting with Kim to seal a denuclearization deal, stating that “I’d like to see it done in one meeting. But oftentimes that’s not the way deals work … There’s a very good chance that it won’t be done in one meeting or two meetings or three meetings. But it’ll get done at some point. It may get done really nicely and really intelligently, or it may not get done intelligently. It may have to be the hard way.” Steve Holland reports at Reuters.

“It’s absolutely clear that when starting a discussion about solving the nuclear problem and other problems on the Korean Peninsula, we proceed from the fact that the decision cannot be complete while sanctions are in place,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, following a meeting yesterday with Kim in Pyongyang. Gardiner Harris and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.

“We believe that we are moving in the right direction to the ongoing series of consultations,” U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim remarked to South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa today. Ju-min Park reports at Reuters.

“As we move to adjust to the political situation in the face of U.S. hegemonism, I am willing to exchange detailed and in-depth opinions with your leadership and hope to do so moving forward,” Kim told Lavrov, indicating a desire to boost cooperation with Russia, which until now has remained on the periphery during North Korea’s renewed diplomatic efforts. The AP reports.

A summit between Russian and North Korean leaders is a possibility, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters today, adding that the format and timing of such meeting is to be coordinated by the diplomats. The possible summit was discussed during Lavrov’s meeting with Kim, according to the North’s state news agency, Polina Nikolskaya reports at Reuters.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono claimed to have received assurances from U.S. officials that the Washington will stick to a hard line in negotiations with Pyongyang, and will insist on “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ahead of any sanctions relief or other economic benefits. Josh Rogin reports at the Washington Post.

South Korea expressed interest yesterday in a three-way summit in Singapore with South Korean President Moon Jae-in taking a seat at the negotiating table, although Seoul commented that such a three-way arrangement could only materialize with the support of Pyongyang and Washington. Michelle Ye Hee Lee and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

The two Koreas agreed at a high-level meeting today to hold talks later this month on military issues and reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, the parties claimed in a joint statement, with upcoming military talks due to take place on June 14 and a separate meeting on sports exchanges on the southern side set for June 18. The meeting is being held in the border village Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (D.M.Z.) separating the two Koreas and aims to build on the agreement reached during the first summit between Kim and Moon in April, Hyonhee Shin reports at Reuters.

During the meeting the two Koreas agreed to establish a joint liaison office as soon as possible, which will be located in the North Korean joint industrial complex of Kaesong, allegedly closed two years ago following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test. Song Jung-a reports at the Financial Times.

North Korea also suggested during the talks today that the two Koreas hold a joint celebration of the anniversary of the 2000 inter-Korean summit this month, Hyonhee Shin reports at Reuters.

The South Korean Defense Ministry has found itself defending a $30 million golf project, after Moon’s political rivals complained that it sends the wrong message amid the turbulent negotiations with the North, with the administration hitting back that “an army golf course helps troops enhance military capability and maintain readiness…The course can also make a potential site for military operation.” Brian Murphy reports at the Washington Post.

Trump must demand that Kim abandon his totalitarian control over North Korea if he is to have any success in “defanging the North Korean nuclear menace,” Claudia Rosett argues at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim Yong-chol has served three generations of North Korean dictators, and managed to survive a wave of purges that ended the reigns of many of his counterparts when Kim Jong-un assumed office in 2011. Robbie Gramer explains at Foreign Policy.

Trump’s thinking on diplomacy is “soft-boiled,” comments Nic Robertson at CNN, highlighting that Kim has offered nothing new on denuclearization.

Former and current spy chiefs are playing a markedly prominent role in the arranging of the proposed Trump-Kim summit, Greg Myre comments at NPR.

The twists and turns of the past week suggest Trump has overturned the usual diplomatic process, comments Uri Friedman at the Atlantic.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey was recently interviewed by prosecutors as part of an investigation into whether his deputy, Andrew McCabe, lied to federal agents, according to a source familiar with the matter. The allegations follow politicized attacks by President Trump on McCabe for his role in special counsel Robert Mueller and the F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Matt Zapotosky reports at the Washington Post.

“Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia!” the president said in a message on Twitter yesterday, contradicting his earlier statements about the circumstances of Comey’s firing, including an interview in May last year where he said he planned to fire the F.B.I. Director because of “this Russia thing.” Adam Edelman reports at NBC News.

Mueller’s investigation has cost almost $17m so far, according to a Justice Department report released yesterday. Carrie Johnson reports at NPR.

A former senior F.B.I. official has accused Trump of trying to upend the F.B.I.’s investigation into Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich “out of an animus toward Bob Mueller, James Comey and [former U.S. Attorney] Pat Fitzgerald,” adding that commuting the Governor’s sentence is part of a broader campaign to discredit Mueller – who was head of the F.B.I.’s Chicago office at the time of the Blagojevich investigation. Natasha Korecki reports at POLITICO.

SYRIA

“Any interested party in Syria should understand that attacking U.S. forces or our coalition partners would be a bad policy,” Director of the Joint Staff Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. told reporters at a Pentagon briefing, responding to comments by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an interview yesterday that U.S. and U.S.-backed forces should leave northeastern Syria and the Syrian army would “resort to liberating the area by force, with the Americans or without the Americans” if dialogue fails. Liz Sly reports at the Washington Post.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) also responded to Assad’s threats, with S.D.F. spokesperson Kino Gabriel saying that “any military solution, as far as the S.D.F. is concerned, will lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people.” Reuters reports.

A total of 892 civilians have been killed by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria since the war began in 2014, the coalition said in its latest monthly report, which does not accord with the reports of many war monitors, including Airwars, which says that at least 6,259 have been killed by the coalition. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu and discussed establishing a de-escalation zone in southern Syria when they met in Moscow yesterday, according to the T.A.S.S. news agency. The area is host to a plethora of forces on the ground who have competing interests: with rebels controlling parts of southwest Syria on the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed militias holding other territory near the Syria-Israel frontier. Reuters reports.

“The role of Iran is getting bigger and bigger, at the expense of our people,” the head of Syria’s opposition Syrian Negotiation Commission (S.N.C.) warned the European Union (E.U.) yesterday, calling on the bloc to use the opportunity created by the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to set up an “international mechanism that could limit the influence of Iran in the region in general, and in our country in particular.” Gabriela Baczynska reports at Reuters.

Russia and Iran have been key allies to Assad in Syria, but Russia has also maintained close relations with Israel. Moscow’s desire to balance its ties with Iran and Israel has come under strain due to recent confrontations between the two countries – which may lead to Russia and Iran to diverge on their strategic interests in Syria, Jonathan Marcus provides an analysis at the BBC.

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]

IRAN

“We will be unswerving in upholding” the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said today, speaking alongside the European Union (E.U.) foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who said the E.U. and other partners were working “in full coordination” to save the agreement. The AP reports.

The non-U.S. signatories to the 2015 deal have warned that U.S. withdrawal risks a proliferation problem. John Irish and Arshad Mohammed report at Reuters.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

More than 2,000 settlements in the occupied West Bank have been approved by the Israeli government, according to local media, with an Israeli organization condemning the government for taking advantage of the “carte blanche” given by the Trump administration to undermine the chances of establishing a two-state solution with Palestine. Al Jazeera reports.

“There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats,” the U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in an interview earlier this week, which included comments on the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, settlement expansion in the West Bank, and the Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestine. Raphael Ahren and David Horovitz report at The Times of Israel.

The militant Palestinian Hamas group has sought to increase pressure on Israel in response to the economic and humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with analysts saying the immediate aim is to ease restrictions imposed as part of the blockade on the occupied territory. Erin Cunningham explains at the Washington Post.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

“The United States has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands,” Director of the Joint Staff Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. told reporters yesterday at the Pentagon, responding to a question about the U.S. ability to “blow apart” artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea. Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne and Ben Westcott report at CNN.

Lt. Gen. McKenzie later clarified his remarks, saying he was referring to U.S. operation during World War II and that “[you] shouldn’t read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The State Department yesterday published two unclassified cyber reports providing President Trump with recommendations on how his administration can better deter cyber threats, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commenting that “these documents and their recommendations emphasize the importance of the Department’s and the U.S. government’s ongoing work to engage foreign partners to address a range of threats in cyberspace, thereby improving the cybersecurity of the nation.” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Civil liberties organizations are urging U.S. officials to disclose more details about the call records collected on Americans by the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) in 2017, with the 24 groups – including the American Civil Liberties Union and digital rights group Access Now – claiming in a letter that information on the more than 500 million calls is crucial in determining executive overreach. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE

The dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko said yesterday that he wanted to avoid the fate of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal when he decided to stage his own death in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, referring to his attempt to foil a Russian plot to assassinate him and the poisoning of Skripal in the English city of Salisbury in March – which the British authorities blamed on Russia. Olena Vasina and Sergei Karazy report at Reuters.

The Babchenko incident makes it much more difficult to dismiss Russian claims that it is the victim of false-flag operations, Julia Ioffe writes at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Lithuanian and Romanian authorities “knew of the nature and purposes of the C.I.A.’s activities on its territory” at the time, the European Court of Human Rights (E.C.H.R.) said in its ruling yesterday, when finding that the two countries were complicit in the torture of al-Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashri, both of whom are now held at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Alan Cowell and Charlie Savage report 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.