The Early Edition: June 21, 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

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis admitted yesterday that there have been no signs that North Korea has taken steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, adding that the “detailed negotiations have not begun” and that such measures would not be expected at this stage. Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Mattis confirmed that he will travel to China and South Korea next week to discuss the “way ahead” with his counterparts and top officials. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“North Korea has yet to show any concrete steps towards denuclearization,” Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said today, warning that the U.S. and Japan must keep up their guard. Reuters reports.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a second meeting yesterday in Beijing during which they discussed measures to boost “strategic and tactical” cooperation between the two countries, according to North Korea’s state K.C.N.A. news agency, which followed a meeting on Tuesday in which the leaders reportedly reached an understanding on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Reuters reports.

A U.S. official yesterday identified a North Korean launch site that Trump said Kim had pledged to dismantle when they met in Singapore, with the official stating that the site is the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in the western part of the country and has been used to test “liquid-propellant engines for its long-range ballistic missiles.” Matt Spetalnick reports at Reuters.

The remains of over 250 service members are expected to be transferred by the North Korean government to the U.S. over the coming days, which would fulfil an agreement between Trump-Kim made in their joint Singapore statement. Gordon Lubold and Michael R. Gordon report at the Wall Street Journal.

“We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today, already 200 got sent back,” President Trump said at a rally of his supporters in Duluth, Minnesota, yesterday, however there has been no official confirmation from military authorities that the transfer has taken place. Demetri Sevastopulo and Bryan Harris report at the Financial Times.

Japan will make an announcement tomorrow on drills to prepare for a North Korean missile attack, according to a Japanese senior official, with the Japanese Kyodo news agency reporting that the government has decided to halt the evacuation drills. Al Jazeera reports.

The top National Security Council staff official on nuclear weapons, Andrea Hall, has confirmed that she will leave the White House, the departure coming as the Trump administration begins work on detailed negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs following the president’s recent summit meeting with Kim in Singapore. John Hudson and Karen DeYoung report at the Washington Post.

Senior administration officials have said that Hall’s departure is part of a regular rotation and, according to one U.S. official, Hall has already been replaced by Julie Bentz, who has experience working on nuclear policy. Reuters reports.

President Xi appears to believe that Kim will not give up his nuclear programs immediately, so his priority is maintaining a good relationship with Kim and ensuring that North Korea’s economy is stable and developing with China’s guidance. Emily Rauhala provides an analysis at Washington Post.

Kim’s trip to Beijing demonstrates that China is still North Korea’s greatest ally. Amanda Erickson provides an overview of the complicated relationship between the two countries at the Washington Post.

U.S. WITHDRAWS FROM THE U.N. HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

The U.N. General Assembly said today that it is still waiting for notification from the U.S. of its withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, which would serve as the first step required for the election of a replacement. The AP reports.

President of the U.N. Human Rights Council Vojislav Šuc confirmed yesterday that the election of a new Member State would take place “as soon as possible” to fill the vacant seat, once U.S. “notification of withdrawal is formally received.” Members are elected by majority vote at the U.N. General Assembly, The U.N. News Centre reports.

Britain and the European Union (E.U.) yesterday lamented Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Council, with Slovenian President Borut Pahor commenting to the 47-member forum in Geneva that “it is bad news, it is bad news for this council, it is bad news I think for the United Nations … I think for the United States, it is bad news for everybody who cares about human rights.” The U.S. seat was empty and its nameplate was removed at the end of the day, Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

“China expresses regret at the U.S. decision to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council,” commented China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang yesterday, adding that “China will continue, working with all sides, to make its contribution to the healthy development of human rights around the world via constructive dialogue and cooperation.” Luis Sanchez reports at the Hill.

The U.S. yesterday blamed human rights watchdog organizations for the proposed withdrawal, with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley writing a scathing letter highlighting the role of 18 organizations in opposing her failed attempt to push through changes to the council last month. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

“You put yourself on the side of Russia and China, and opposite the United States, in a key human rights issue,” Haley wrote to the organizations, adding that “you should know that your efforts to block negotiations and thwart reform were a contributing factor in the U.S. decision to withdraw from the council.” Stephanie Murray reports at POLITICO.

Human Rights Watch U.N. Director Louis Charbonneau commented that it is “preposterous” to suggest rights organizations had undermined reform attempts and “absurd” to claim that the groups were on the side of China and Russia, adding that the U.S. was “attacking and blaming N.G.O.s for its own failures.” The BBC reports.

Haley is correct to claim that the Council’s rules single out Israel for scrutiny, and a broader problem is presented by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Ethiopia who are doing the scrutinizing, argues Krishnadev Calamur at the Atlantic.

YEMEN

Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels have pledged to continue fighting after Yemeni pro-government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition seized Hodeidah airport from their control yesterday, in a key step towards taking the strategic port city. Rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi called for reinforcements to repel the advance, after ongoing fighting left nearly 350 people dead, Al Jazeera reports.

“We will face all of the incursions on the ground. Our determination will never be dented” said Al-Houthi, making the comments via the rebels’ Al-Masirah news outlet.  AFP reports.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government forces have intensified shelling of opposition-held parts of the country’s southwest, as they mobilize for a campaign to regain the area bordering Jordan and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to opposition sources. The frontline town of Kafr Shams and the town Busra al Harir were struck by dozens of mortars from nearby army positions, Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia fighters will begin leaving northern Syria’s Manbij region from July 4, following a month of preparations, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced today, claiming that the roadmap for Manbij agreed between the U.S. and Turkey is being implemented in full. Ezgi Erkoyun reports at Reuters.

The more than 5-year siege of Ghouta in eastern Syria was the site of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to a 23-page report from a high-level U.N. inquiry published yesterday. Neighborhoods suffered aerial and ground bombardments “which claimed the lives of hundreds of Syrian men, women and children … [with] numerous homes, markets and hospitals all but razed to the ground,” The U.N. News Centre reports.

“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” Chair of the Inquiry Paulo Pinheiro commented in a news release. Louisa Loveluck reports at the Washington Post.

The situation on Syria’s southern front has reached a tipping point, with Russian-Israeli coordination taking precedence over the ceasefire agreement brokered by President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at last year’s G-20 summit, and Iran and the U.S. facing increasing pressure. Joe Macaron comments 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

“I don’t want to launch an operation [in the Gaza Strip], but there is a good chance that we will have no other option,” the Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said today, making the comments after a significant escalation between the Palestinian Hamas militant group and Israel, and adding that Palestinians flying burning kites into Israeli territory should be shot regardless of their age because “they’re terrorists.” Yaniv Kubovich reports at Haaretz.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman yesterday to discuss brokering a peace deal between Israel and Palestine and humanitarian support for the residents of Gaza, according to a White House statement. Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

RUSSIA

President Trump plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin when Trump travels to Europe in July, according to two sources familiar with the matter, who have said the plans have not been finalized. A meeting would follow Trump’s fractious meeting with leaders of the G-7 at a summit earlier this month during which he proposed Russia be readmitted to the group of industrialized nations, Jennifer Jacobs and Margaret Talev reporting at Bloomberg.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has warned that weapons deployed to Crimea are capable of fending off any assault, telling top military officials that “the high-tech weapons systems don’t leave a single chance to a potential adversary who might dare to encroach on the Russian territory.” The comments come amidst rising tensions between Russia and the West, the AP reports.

Russia may have accelerated efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because President Obama’s administration did not retaliate strongly to reports of its activities, former Obama aides told U.S. senators yesterday. The committee’s chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he intends to hold further hearings with Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice as well as with former heads of the F.B.I. and Department of Justice, Patricia Zengerle reports at Reuters.

The Kremlin announced today that U.S. national security adviser John Bolton will visit Russia next week as part of preparations for a U.S.-Russian summit. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “we have nothing to say yet, and if and when we are ready we will make the relevant statement,” while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized that “we are ready for contacts … if the agreement on a high-level meeting is reached, it will be announced,” the AP reports.

Lavrov and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres discussed the Iran nuclear deal and progress on the Korean peninsula in Moscow today. Interfax news agency quoted Guterres as saying that Russia and the U.N. are working toward implementation of agreements over Syria peace process discussed in Sochi earlier this year, Katya Golubkova reports at Reuters.

IRAN

Iran today announced a list of 15 demands for improving relations with the U.S., including the return of the U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear accord, in response to an equivalent list of demands made by Washington last month. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the U.S. to stop providing arms to the “invaders of Yemen” – Saudi Arabia – and to drop its opposition to the nuclear disarmament of Israel, the AP reports.

“The Iranian people will never surrender in the face of the plots and pressure of the American government,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday, with Iran facing the re-imposition of economic sanctions by Washington following the U.S. departure from the 2015 nuclear accord. Babak Dehghanpisheh reports at Reuters.

Iran’s “aggressive tendencies” in the Middle East must be countered, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today, making the comments after meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis yesterday commented that President’s Trump’s recent direction to establish a “space force” will require new legislation. Mattis noted that the space force is among the issues Pentagon leaders will bring up bring up tomorrow morning when they meet national security adviser John Bolton, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The former senior U.S. official Victoria Nuland warned the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday that China and others “are now adapting and improving on Russia’s methodology” to influence politics and advance their agendas, pointing to alleged Chinese operations to influence politics in Taiwan, Australia and other neighboring countries. Tim Mak reports at NPR.

A suicide bomber killed four members of the self-styled Libyan National Army (L.N.A.) in the eastern city of Derna yesterday. The attack took place amid the L.N.A. offensive to take control of the city from local forces and Islamist militants, Reuters reports.

The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has been preparing for new prisoners, possibly including members of the Islamic State group, following Trump’s executive order to keep the prison open. However prison commander Navy Rear Adm. John Ring has said he has not received word of new prisoners arriving, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Europeans who travelled to fight for the Islamic State group have not returned in large numbers since the loss of their strongholds in Syria and Iraq, but have inspired a growing number of home-grown attacks, Europe’s police agency Europol announced yesterday. Alissa de Carbonnel reports at Reuters.

The ongoing White House attacks on justice system institutions will undermine the U.S.’ authority overseas, Josh Campbell comments 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).