The Early Edition: July 2, 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

New satellite imagery has revealed that North Korea is completing construction of a key missile-manufacturing plant. Work on the facility has continued despite U.S. pressure and the recent summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Singapore, Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies believe that the Pyongyang regime is seeking to extract as many concessions as possible from the Trump administration while maintaining its nuclear weapons program, according to over a dozen U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence analysts’ assessments. Courtney Kube, Ken Dilanian and Carol E. Lee report at NBC News.

U.S. intelligence officials have assessed that North Korea does not intend to completely disarm its nuclear weapons program, the findings standing in contrast with President Trump’s declaration after the Singapore summit that “there is no longer a nuclear threat” from Pyongyang. Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick report at the Washington Post.

The site being developed is the Chemical Material Institute based in the North Korean city of Hamhung. A researcher has said that the facility is known for developing re-entry vehicles for missile warheads, Joshua Berlinger reports at CNN.

The assessments of North Korea’s missile-manufacturing facility follows a report last week by the 38 North monitoring group showing that the regime was upgrading its Yongbyon nuclear site “at a rapid pace” and ahead of a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang to discuss denuclearization – a visit which may take place as soon as this week. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

North Korea could dismantle “all of their W.M.D. and ballistic missile programs in a year” if they have “the strategic decision already made to do that and they’re cooperative,” the White House national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview yesterday. Bolton also declined to comment on the reports of U.S. intelligence assessments about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, but said the administration is “very well aware of North Korea’s pattern of behavior over decades of negotiating with the United States,” Stefan Becket reporting at CBS News.

The plan to dismantle North Korea’s advanced weapons program has not been put into action yet, Bolton said during the interview with CBS. In a later interview with Fox News, Bolton refused to address to the Washington Post report about the assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies about Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, Maegan Vazquez reports at CNN.

Advisers to Pompeo have cast doubt on Bolton’s claim that Pyongyang’s advanced weapons programs could be dismantled within a year. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad report at the New York Times.

Trump expressed confidence in North Korea’s denuclearization efforts in spite of the reports, saying in an interview with Fox News yesterday that “I think they’re very serious” about disarming. The AFP reports.

“Now, is it possible? Have I been in deals, have you been in things where, people didn’t work out? It’s possible,” Trump said when asked about negotiations with North Korea and the deal he reached with Kim. Tom McCarthy and Martin Pengelly report at the Guardian.

Kim has called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to help bring an early end to economic sanctions imposed on his country, the Japanese Yomiuri newspaper reported yesterday. Reuters reports.

Retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris was sworn in as the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea on Saturday. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

North and South Korea reopened a maritime communication channel for the first time in 10 years, the South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement yesterday, with an official saying that the move demonstrated that the two countries were “taking practical steps” to uphold agreements made between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in when they met on April 27. Reuters reports.

Some lawmakers and former officials have urged Trump to appoint a special representative to oversee the North Korea negotiations, stating that the issue needs undivided attention – which Pompeo is not able to give as secretary of state. Nahal Toosi reports at POLITICO.

Trump must call Kim out for continuing to enrich uranium or Kim “will conclude he can keep getting away with it.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

SYRIA

Pro-Syrian government troops, reinforced by Syrian and Russian airstrikes and barrel bombs, have stormed through several towns in Deraa Province over the past week, driving 160,000 people from their homes across southwestern Syria, apparently in breach of the terms of a ceasefire agreed by U.S., Russia and Jordan. Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad report at the New York Times.

The U.S. was not able to confirm the supposed ceasefire Friday, with an official telling reporters that “we can’t confirm reports of a ceasefire … As far as we know, in the southwest area of Syria fighting continues with the regime and Russia continuing to bombard the area … the situation continues to be grim with the fighting continuing and the regime and Russia continuing to bombard the area.” Lesley Wroughton and Daphne Psaledakis report at Reuters.

Rebel groups met Russian negotiators Saturday to seek peace terms for the province, but attempts to strike a deal failed. Local groups in many of towns seized by the pro-Syrian government troops had already negotiated their own surrender deals independently of the main rebel operations rooms following heavy air raids, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Angus McDowall report at Reuters.

Jordan will hold talks with Russia this week over a ceasefire in southwestern Syria and alleviating the humanitarian situation, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said today, adding that he will travel tomorrow to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Suleiman al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

The major insurgent-held town of Bosra al-Sham in southwestern Syria has accepted the return of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, pro-government media and U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported yesterday, although some local activists and rebels questioned whether a deal had been completed. Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Angus McDowall report at Reuters.

Thousands of families fleeing the government were stranded at the Jordanian border Saturday, with the situation rapidly deteriorating across several points along the border with no shelter or running water, according to aid organizations and activists in the area – many of whom are calling on Jordan to open the border to Syrians fleeing the violence. Megan Specia reports at the New York Times.

The Jordanian army delivered humanitarian aid to thousands of displaced Syrians taking shelter at the border, a government spokeswoman said Saturday, with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi sending a message on Twitter claiming that “we are continuing to do everything to help civilians in the south on their land … we are moving in all directions to bring a halt in fighting and protect civilians.” Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports at Reuters.

Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz visited a key crossing at the Syria border yesterday, inspecting the humanitarian efforts, although the Jordanian government remained firm on its position that the border must remain closed.  A government spokesperson told reporters that “Jordan has priorities … its security and safety in the first place and secondly easing its economic crisis,” the AP reports.

The Israel Defence Force (I.D.F.) said yesterday that it would reinforce troops along the Syrian border and intensify its humanitarian efforts in the area, with thousands of those fleeing the violence attempting to move toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Aaron Heller reports at the Washington Post.

Up to 11,000 refugees had already reached the Israeli border fence on the Golan Heights yesterday, judging it the safest place to avoid the Syrian government’s air raids, with some amongst the refugees petitioning Israel to offer them protection or even annex the territory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “we will continue defending our borders, we will provide humanitarian aid as best as we can, we will not allow entry to our territories and demand strict adherence to the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement with the Syrian army,” Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Unidentified drones were shot down close to the Russian Hmeimim air base in Syria, an air base spokesman said yesterday, although according to Interfax news agency the base was not damaged during the incident. Vladimir Soldatkin reports at Reuters.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 2426 (2018) on Friday, renewing until Dec. 31 the mandate of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (U.N.D.O.F.), and adding that there should be “no military activity” in the area of separation between Israel and Syria, including both Syrian military and armed opposition operations. The U.N. News Centre reports.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called on all parties in the Syrian conflict to respect their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights laws, protect civilians and facilitate safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access. The U.N. News Centre reports.

U.S. and European officials hoping to stabilize Syria’s north are scrambling to fill the gaps left by the almost total withdrawal of American assistance, nearly three months since the White House froze roughly $200 million designated for funding recovery in the country, Rhys Dubin reports at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 35 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between June 18 and June 24. [Central Command]

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

“Let them discuss these issues and see exactly where there might be room for progress or where we find there is no room at all,” the White House national security adviser John Bolton said of the planned July 16 summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that the meeting in Helsinki would offer the opportunity to get beyond the “political noise” that has emerged from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. David Nakamura reports at the Washington Post.

President Trump will raise the issue of Russian meddling in the election during the summit, Bolton said in an interview yesterday, adding that Putin told him when they met last week that “there was no meddling in 2016 by the Russian state” but that was not the same as saying that there was no Russian meddling at all. Doina Chiacu reports at Reuters.

The Trump-Putin meeting “makes the U.S. a less reliable partner for Western countries like my own,” the former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said yesterday. Alexandra King reports at CNN.

The SUPREME COURT

Trump plans to announce his pick to replace Justice Antony Kennedy on July 9, saying on Friday that he has narrowed down candidates for the Supreme Court seat to “about five” and that the selection included two women. Kevin Liptak reports at CNN.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said yesterday that she would not support a Supreme Court nominee who “demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade,” referring to the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. Her vote is likely to be key when it comes to voting on the president’s nominee, Heather Long reports at the Washington Post.

An overview of the five senators who are likely to decide the next Supreme Court Justice is provided by Susan Davis at NPR.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have obtained records of British financier and Brexit campaigner Aaron Banks’s communications, including those with Russian diplomats and about Russian business deals. Investigators have taken a special interest in the close links Banks and other Brexit leaders forged with President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign team, David D. Kirkpatrick and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

Mueller has again requested a delay in the sentencing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to court documents filed Friday. Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to F.B.I. agents investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

An assistant to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort granted investigators from the F.B.I. access to a storage locker containing evidence Manafort is hoping to suppress, according to court testimony Friday. The documents contained in the locker reportedly relate to numerous charges against Manafort for financial crimes, Josh Bowden reports at the Hill.

The attorney for F.B.I. counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok – Aitan Goelman – is calling on the House Judiciary Committee to make public the transcript from his recent closed-door testimony, claiming that Republican lawmakers are disseminating false information about the interview. Goelman commented in a statement that “Pete, more than anyone, wants full transparency around the examination of his work,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

It is time for Strzok’s testimony to be released, argues Randall D. Eliason at the Washington Post, pointing out that keeping his testimony secret “leads only to selective leaks, spin and speculation.”

It is impossible to predict how a more conservative Supreme Court with two Trump-appointed justices might respond to the president’s arguments should he choose not to sit down for an interview with Mueller, Philip Ewing explains in an analysis at NPR.

YEMEN

“The [Saudi-led] Coalition has paused the advance on the city & port on June 23 for a week to allow the U.N. envoy [Martin Griffiths] to secure an unconditional withdrawal from Hodeidah [in Yemen],” the U.A.E. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a message on Twitter yesterday. The coalition launched an offensive in June on the strategic port city of Hodeidah, which is controlled by the Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels. The AP reports.

The coalition has continued “pressure on the parameter” since the pause took effect on June 23, Gargash explained. Al Jazeera reports.

“Failing these patient [U.N.] efforts we believe that continued military pressure will ultimately bring the liberation of Hodeidah and force the Houthis to engage seriously in negotiations,” Gargash also said yesterday. The AFP reports.

Griffiths has been taking steps to avoid an all-out assault on Hodeidah and the Houthis have offered to hand over management of the Hodeidah port to the U.N. as part of an overall ceasefire in the city, however the Saudi-led coalition have insisted that the Houthis withdraw completely. Reuters reports.

IRAN

Unrest has broken out across Iran over economic issues and water security, taking place against the backdrop of looming sanctions from the Trump administration and increased pressure since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Jon Gambrell reports at the AP.

“When the greatest economic power stops doing business with you, then you collapse,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said at a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran – which is largely controlled by the formerly proscribed Mujahedin-e-Khalq (M.E.K.) group – at the weekend, calling for regime change in Iran. Giuliani also claimed that the ongoing protests in the country “are happening because of many of our people in Albania [which hosts an M.E.K. compound] and many of people here and throughout the world.” Arron Merat and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

“Anybody who thinks the Ayatollahs are honest people is a fool. They are crooks and that’s what Europe is propping up,” Giuliani said in his speech, suggesting that sanctions by the Trump administration are aimed to encourage regime change. John Irish reports at Reuters.

The Iranian government has a plan to “thwart the U.S. rallying cry that Iranian oil [exports] must be stemmed,” the Iranian first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri said at the weekend, responding to the Trump administration’s threat to impose sanctions on business partners and countries who import oil from Iran. Al Jazeera reports.

The Trump administration and Saudi Arabia can use oil as a “nonlethal weapon” to bring about regime change in Iran. Nawaf E. Obaid writes at the Wall Street Journal.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomber struck a convoy of Sikh and Hindu minority members travelling to meet Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani in the eastern city of Jalalabad yesterday, killing at least 19 people and wounding at least 20. Rahim Faiez reports at the Washington Post.

The only Sikh candidate running in elections in the country this year – Avtar Singh Khalsa – was killed in the attack. The explosion occurred a fair distance from the compound where Ghani was holding meetings and according to officials he remained unharmed. Zabihullah Ghazi and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

The Indian embassy in Afghanistan condemned the “cowardly terrorist” attack, which has since been claimed by the Islamic State group.  “It is over for us, we are finished, they have massacred us, at least 10 of us,” an unidentified member of one of the minority groups told journalists, AFP reports.

Unidentified gunmen beheaded three men and set fire to a boys’ school in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan late Saturday, in an attack officials have blamed on Islamic State group militants. So far no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Ahmad Sultan report at Reuters.

Ghani declared a formal end to his government’s ceasefire with the Taliban on Saturday but called on Taliban fighters to agree to full peace talks – following a three-day truce during the holy Muslim Eid-al-Fitr holiday last month. “It is now the Taliban’s decision, whether they want to keep killing or join the peace process,” Ghani told a news conference in Kabul, James Mackenzie reports at Reuters.

The Taliban is facing mounting pressure to respond to Ghani’s offer for peace talks, in the context of increasing demands for an end to the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan, according to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells. Wells told reporters in Kabul that “right now it’s the Taliban leaders, and frankly it’s Taliban leaders who aren’t residing in Afghanistan, who are the obstacle to a negotiated political settlement,” James Mackenzie reports at Reuters.

The Senate has confirmed President Trump’s pick Lt. Gen. Scott Miller to take over command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the confirmation coming just hours after his nomination was advanced by the Senate Armed Services Committee late Thursday. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

IRAQ

A suicide bombing yesterday killed one person and injured 20 in the Iraqi province of Kirkuk. The explosion took place near the warehouse holding ballot boxes from May’s contentious national election, according to police sources, Mustafa Mahmoud reporting at Reuters.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last week directed the execution of 12 people convicted of terrorism. There have been concerns about the lack of due process when dealing with suspected Islamic State group militants, the BBC reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Gaza health officials said that Israeli forces shot and killed two Palestinians and wounded 415 others on Friday. Protests began at the border fence between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on March 30, Nidal al-Mughrabi reports at Reuters.

Australia today ended direct funding to the Palestinian Authority, with the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stating that she was concerned that the funding could be used to fund activities that Australia “would never support.” Rod McGuirk reports at the AP.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Washington policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the threat of high-tech surveillance from overseas – an anxiety exacerbated by U.S. spy agencies’ use of similar technologies. A spending bill passed by the Senate last week contained a measure directing the Pentagon to disclose mobile device spying near U.S. military facilities, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

A 747-page document released to Congress late on Friday discloses deals struck between Facebook and dozens of app developers, device and software makers, allowing those companies special access to user data. The disclosure stands in contrast with the social network’s previous public statements that claimed it restricted personal information to outsiders in 2015, Georgia Wells reports at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The largescale Rim of the Pacific (R.I.M.P.A.C.) Naval exercises began last week, involving troops and aircraft from 25 nations. China was disinvited from the drills due to its militarization in the disputed South China Sea, Brad Lendon reports at CNN.

“No. No. We’re getting along very well … Look, at some point, things happen,” President Trump said Friday when asked about his chief of staff John Kelly and reports that he will be replaced. Reuters reports.

A ceasefire in South Sudan to help end the five-year civil war was violated by government forces hours after it began, the AP reports.

Islamist militants killed at least six people at the headquarters of an African military taskforce in central Mali on Friday. The taskforce was set up last year to root out jihadists in the Sahel region, Reuters reports. 

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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.