The Early Edition: June 19, 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.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is visiting China today and tomorrow, according to Chinese state media. The trip follows Kim’s summit with President Trump in Singapore last week and is his third visit to China in three months, Jeremy Page and Chun Han Wong report at the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement of the visit marked a departure from protocol, as Beijing usually waits until after North Korean leaders have left to acknowledge their visits. Lucy Hornby and Charles Clover report at the Financial Times.

It is expected that Kim will discuss sanctions and – at least in general terms – the commitments towards denuclearization that he made at the Singapore summit, the BBC reports.

“We hope this visit can help to further deepen China-North Korea relations, strengthen strategic communication between both countries on important issues and promote regional peace and stability,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a regular briefing. Ben Blanchard and Christine Kim report at Reuters.

Details of Kim’s itinerary have not been released, but the timing of the visit serves as an indication of Beijing’s key role in diplomacy on the continent, with one Beijing policy analyst commenting that “although it seems there is a booming romance between Kim Jong-un and Trump, Kim understands the hierarchy, he knows that [Chinese President] Xi is the Asian Godfather.” Emily Rouhala reports at the Washington Post.

Kim’s visit will allow China to highlight its crucial role in U.S. efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, with the U.S. having long hoped that China will exert its influence on the North. Christopher Bodeen and Dake Kang report at the Washington Post.

Kim’s visit coincides with a major trade conflict between the U.S. and China, enabling Kim to play one side against the other. Kim appears to arrive in Beijing with some degree of leverage; although China has backed U.N. sanctions against North Korea, it has recently indicated it is willing to offer Pyongyang economic assistance – in a move some see as intended to anger Washington, Jane Perlez reports at the New York Times.

China’s priorities for talks with Kim will be to ensure that Beijing is included in any peace treaty talks, and to move towards creating an environment on the Korean Peninsula that will make it unnecessary for U.S. troops to remain. Al Jazeera reports.

The Pentagon announced yesterday that it had agreed with South Korea to cancel the major Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint exercise scheduled for August, in keeping with Trump’s pledge to halt “war games” while negotiations are in play with North Korea. Gordon Lubold and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Consistent with President Trump’s commitment and in concert with our Republic of Korea ally, the United States military has suspended all planning for this August’s defensive ‘war game,’” commented Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White in a statement released last night. White added that “we are still coordinating additional actions … no decisions on subsequent war games have been made,” Eric Schmidtt reports at the New York Times.

South Korea presented a united front with the U.S. with Seoul’s defense ministry claiming that the decision was necessary to support ongoing talks both countries have with the North. Ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo comment “South Korea and the U.S. made the decision as we believe this will contribute to maintaining such momentum,” Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the Washington Post.

“If you are not attending to your security and continuing to advance your capabilities, then you’ll be in danger … security is a temporary condition,” cautioned Chief of U.S. Forces Korea and U.N. Command Gen. Vincent Brooks, the general who is ultimately responsible for South Korean security. Demetri Sevastopulo and Bryan Harris report at the Financial Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that he will likely travel back to North Korea “before too terribly long,” in an attempt to flesh out the commitments made at the Singapore summit last week. Pompeo made the remarks at a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, and added that it was “hard to know” whether a second summit would be required between Trump and Kim, David Brunnstrom reports at Reuters.

Pompeo said yesterday that Trump agreed to “alter the armistice agreement” that brought Korean War fighting to a close in exchange for denuclearization, adding that Kim “has made very clear his commitment to fully denuclearize his country… that’s everything, right. It’s not just the weapons systems. It’s everything. I return for that, the president has committed to making sure that we alter the armistice agreement, provide the security assurances that chairman Kim needs.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said that he appreciated the reasons for the decision to cancel the exercises, but stressed the need for the two countries to continue their other joint drills which he described as “important pillars” for maintaining regional peace and stability, adding that plans for U.S.-Japan exercises have not been affected. Kim Tong Hyung reports at the A.P.

The Russian Foreign Ministry today welcomed the suspension of the drills, according to Interfax news agency. Katya Golubkova reports at Reuters.

An explainer on U.S.-South Korean “war games” is provided by the A.P.

It is a moral and strategic imperative for the U.S. to stand with North Korean dissidents, Natan Sharansky comments at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Department of Justice (D.O.J.) Inspector General Michael Horowitz disputed Trump’s claim that his report exonerated the president with regard to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, saying during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that he “didn’t look into collusion questions” and his investigators did not look at the Russia probe being led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Sadie Gurman and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

Horowitz will issue a report on former F.B.I. Director James Comey’s handling of memos detailing his conversations with Trump, the Inspector General said at the hearing yesterday. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that his demand for the Mueller investigation to be suspended following the release of the Inspector General’s report was just for show, explaining yesterday that his calls for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to “redeem themselves” was what he’s “supposed to do” because he’s not a “sucker.” Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

“I have spoken voluntarily to Congress and I also cooperated with the special counsel,” Erik Prince, the Trump ally and founder of the private security company Blackwater, has said in an interview with Betsy Woodruff at The Daily Beast, defending himself after coming under scrutiny for his reported meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Lebanese American businessman George Nader and the Israeli social media specialist Joel Zamel at Trump Tower in August 2016, and his meeting with a senior Russian official during the presidential transition.

YEMEN

Yemeni government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition today entered the airport compound in the port city of Hodeidah following intense battles with the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels currently in control of the city. The storming of the airport comes amid the ongoing pro-government forces and Saudi-led coalition offensive on Hodeidah which, if captured, would mark a turning point in the Yemeni conflict, Mohammed Ghobari reporting at Reuters.

Around 26,000 people have sought safety during the offensive on Hodeidah, the spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, said yesterday, adding that “the number is expected to increase as hostilities continue.” Al Jazeera reports.

“There can be no conditions in any offers to withdraw,” the U.A.E.’s Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash told reporters yesterday, explaining that the coalition’s approach “is one of gradual, calibrated and methodical pressure designed for unconditional withdrawal of Houthis.” Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

“The crisis in Yemen should be resolved through political channels … a military approach will fail,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a phone call to Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani yesterday, according to Iranian state media. Reuters reports.

SYRIA

The Turkish Armed Forces and U.S. Armed Forces have begun “independent patrol activities” in northern Syria as per the Manbij roadmap agreed by the two countries, the Turkish military said yesterday, referring to the tensions over the U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in the area, which Ankara deems to be a terrorist organization, and an extension of the separatist Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). Reuters reports.

Turkey has expanded its military, political and economic influence in northern Syria. There is speculation that its deepening hold is intended to revive imperial territorial claims to Syrian provinces and to increase its standing when it comes to negotiating Syria’s future, Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

Israel was behind Sunday’s attack on pro-Syrian government forces near the southern city of Albu Kamal, a U.S. official said yesterday, making the comments after Syrian state media accused the U.S.-led coalition of being responsible for the airstrikes near the Iraq-Syria border, which caused multiple casualties. Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne and Oren Liebermann report at CNN.

“We are not commenting on foreign reports,” a spokesperson for the Israeli military said today in response to the claim by the U.S. official. The AFP reports.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry condemned the airstrike near Albu Kamal in a statement issued today, after Iraqi Shi’ite militias and Syria accused the U.S.-led coalition of carrying out Sunday’s airstrikes. The AP reports.

Talks in Geneva between representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey will begin today to discuss establishing a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria, however the U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura conceded that he does not expect “a major breakthrough” but is “confident progress is possible.” Barbara Bibbo reports at Al Jazeera.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 26 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 11 and June 17. [Central Command]

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that the Palestinian leadership rejects the Trump administration’s plan to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip, as it believes the U.S. intends to create a diplomatic rift between Gaza and the West Bank. A statement issued by Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh accused the U.S. administration of working with Israel to separate Gaza from the West Bank under the pretense of “humanitarian aid or rehabilitation,” with the goal of ending Palestinian attempts to establish an independent state, Jack Khoury and Amir Tibon report at Haaretz.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the Jordanian capital of Amman to discuss regional developments, with Netanyahu’s office announcing yesterday that “Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s commitment to maintaining the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem.” Al Jazeera reports.

President Trump became the fourth consecutive U.S. president to uphold a decades-long commitment – contained in a secret letter – not to press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, after a delegation of senior Israeli officials met with the then-national security adviser Michael Flynn at the White House in 2017, according to a report published in The New Yorker yesterday. The delegation including ambassador Ron Dermer met with officials at the White House to discuss signing the letter, but Flynn resigned amid the Russia scandal later that day, Haaretz reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has said that the intensification of violence in Gaza is “a warning to all how close to the brink of war the situation is,” and is urging leaders on both sides to recommit to the ceasefire that ended the 2014 war. Edith M. Lederer reports at the Washington Post.

A 24-year old Palestinian man was killed yesterday when a section of Israel’s fortifications on the Gaza border blew up as he tampered with it, according to the Israeli Defense Forces. Nidal al-Mugrhabi reports at Reuters.

IRAN

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will travel to Switzerland and Austria next month, the Swiss and Austrian government have said, with the visit to the neutral European countries coming amid attempts to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in May. Reuters reports.

Iran has no plans to extend the range of its missiles, a commander for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari said today, also reiterating that Iran would not negotiate with President Trump over Iran’s regional influence and that Iranian politicians and activists who favored a new round of talks were “traitors and anti-revolutionaries.” Bozorgmehr Sharafedin reports at Reuters.

The former Israeli government minister Gonen Segev was indicted by state prosecutors last week for allegedly spying for Iran, the Israeli Security Agency and the Israeli Police said in a statement yesterday. Ruth Eglash reports at the Washington Post.

AFGHANISTAN

At least four members of Afghanistan’s security forces were killed today by Taliban fighters targeting checkpoints in northern Kunduz province, according to a provincial official. The AP reports.

Uzbekistan has invited Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban to hold peace talks on its territory, the Uzbek foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday, explaining that it was ready to “create, at any stage of the peace process, all the necessary conditions for setting up direct talks.” Reuters reports.

U.S. SPACE FORCE

“We must have American dominance in space … I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces,” President Trump said yesterday at the White House during a meeting of his National Space Council, describing the new force as being “separate but equal” to the Air Force. Betsy Klein reports at CNN.

“We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us … We’re going to be the leader by far,” Trump said yesterday, framing the new force as being important for U.S. national security. Andy Pasztor reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An act of Congress is needed to create a new branch of the military, experts have said in response to Trump’s announcement. Geoff Brumfiel and David Welna explain at NPR.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

Former C.I.A. coder Joshua Adam Schulte has been indicted for computer hacking and espionage, allegedly having passed on the agency’s computer intrusion secrets to WikiLeaks, the Justice Department announced yesterday. Schulte was already in federal custody in Manhattan on child-porn charges and if convicted, he likely faces decades in prison, Kevin Poulsen reports at The Daily Beast.

“Schulte utterly betrayed this nation and downright violated his victims,” F.B.I. official William Sweeney Jr. said in the Justice Department press release, adding that “as an employee of the C.I.A., Schulte took an oath to protect this country, but he blatantly endangered it by the transmission of Classified Information.” Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on the phone yesterday to discuss Syria and North Korea. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the two senior politicians also discussed “some aspects of bilateral relations, including the schedule of political contacts between Russia and the U.S. for the near future,” the A.P. reports.

Pompeo “re-emphasized the U.S. commitment to the southwest ceasefire arrangement that was approved by President Trump and President Putin one year ago,” according to the U.S. State Department, which also claimed in a statement that Pompeo “noted that it was critical for Russia and the Syrian regime to adhere to these arrangements and ensure no unilateral activity in this area.” The statement did not mention whether the two diplomats talked about the Korean Peninsula, Katya Golubkova reports at Reuters.

The Austrian capital of Vienna is under consideration as the location for a potential summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, two sources familiar with the discussions said yesterday. The sources added that the meeting could take place in advance of a July 11-12 N.A.T.O. summit in Brussels that Trump is expected to attend, the comments following Trump’s assertion to reporters on Friday that it was possible that he would meet Putin this summer, Steve Holland reports at Reuters.

The Kremlin said today that there are no plans for a meeting between Trump and Putin ahead of the N.A.T.O. summit, according to Interfax news agency. Katya Golubkov reports at Reuters.

The State Department yesterday urged Russia to release more than 150 political and religious prisoners, accusing Moscow of returning to “cruel Soviet-era practices” to suppress dissent, with one senior State Department official commenting that “the number of these cases involving Russia is growing rapidly…we have seen a threefold increase since 2014.” The renewed concern largely relates to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Senstov, who opposed the Russia annexation of Crimea and is currently on a hunger strike in a Russian prison where he is serving a 20-year sentence on terrorism charges, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have increased after the U.S. Senate voted yesterday to prohibit the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. Katrina Manson and Laura Pitel report at the Financial Times.

The Senate yesterday voted 85-10 to pass the annual defense policy bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act (N.D.A.A.), which provides for around $716bn in spending. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill. 

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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).