The Early Edition: September 20, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has returned home following his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. Local media footage showed Moon’s plane landing at a military airport near Seoul today, with Moons expected to brief journalists on the summit, the AP reports.

The two leaders yesterday pledged new measures aimed at salvaging nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington, after which Moon and Kim used the final day of their summit to climb the symbolic Mount Paektu mountain on the Chinese border –described by Moon as a “long unfulfilled dream.” Reuters reports.

Kim’s offer yesterday includes the decommissioning of the Yongbyon plant which produces fissile material for nuclear weapons, if the U.S. agrees to unspecified concessions. Moon described the gesture as representing significant progress, claiming “complete denuclearization is not far away,” Jonathan Cheng and Dasl Yoon report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim also agreed to make a visit to Seoul, which would mark the first trip by a Northern leader to the South’s capital since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. AFP reports.

The U.S. has stated that it is ready to restart the stalled negotiations with the North “immediately” in light of the offers made at the Moon-Kim summit. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a written statement that “this will mark the beginning of negotiations to transform U.S.-D.P.R.K. [North Korean] relations through the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula,” Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Pompeo said that he had invited North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho to meet him in New York next week, with invitations also extended for a second meeting between North Korean and U.S. representatives in Vienna, Austria. The BBC reports.

President Trump was optimistic about diplomatic progress with the North, yesterday telling reporters: “remember this, prior to my coming into office a lot of people thought we were going – it was inevitable – we were going to war in North Korea … and now the relationship, I have to tell you at least on a personal basis they’re very good … it’s very much calmed down.” However, Trump did not specify what measures the U.S. might take to ensure Pyongynag honors its pledge to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday welcomed the outcome of the summit. “Now is the time for concrete action,” his spokesperson Stephane Dujarric commented in a statement, Reuters reports.

Kim’s commitments have fallen far short of U.S. demands for complete abandonment of the North’s nuclear and missile programs, Choe Sang-Hun and David E. Sanger write at the New York Times, commenting that Kim “has used the relationship with Mr. Moon to sidestep the American demand that he surrender all his nuclear capabilities first, and then negotiate … instead … demanding reciprocal, step-by-step concessions from Mr. Trump — so far unspecified — and holding on to his nuclear weapons at least until he gets those allowances.”

Experts who have been observing the Tongchang-ri missile test site claim that Kim’s promise to dismantle the site in front of international inspectors will do almost nothing to stem the North’s missile and nuclear weapons capabilities. Geoff Brumfield reports at NPR.

Following through on the joint pledge to host the 2023 summer Olympics would present “a herculean challenge for North Korea,” Andrew Jeong explains at the Wall Street Journal, citing the North’s “moribund economy, limited transportation infrastructure, lack of facilities for international guests and abysmal human-rights record.”

Two contrasting views of the Moon-Kim summit – from Pyongynag and from Seoul – are provided by Eric Talmadge and Foster Klug at the AP.

The Moon-Kim summit “brought no significant progress toward that goal [of denuclearization] … notwithstanding the bonhomie,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday that U.S. accusations that Russia assisted North Korea to obtain fuel illegally through naval transfers are unsubstantiated. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley accused Russia on Monday of “cheating” on U.N. sanctions on North Korea and claimed that the U.S. has “evidence of consistent and wide-ranging Russian violations,” Reuters reports.

SYRIA

Thousands of people displaced by violence in northwest Syria have reportedly returned home following Monday’s Russia-Turkey deal that created a demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib. The U.N. had said that in the first 12 days of September, over 38,000 people were internally displaced by the intense government bombing campaign in Idlib and neighboring provinces; 4,500 are estimated to have “spontaneously” returned once the bombardment stopped, and 7,000 more are thought to have returned since the Russia-Turkey deal was announced, according to U.K.-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the AP reports.

Residents of Idlib and its suburbs have reportedly questioned the willingness of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to abide by the terms of Monday’s agreement. An analysis of the local response to – and the implications of – the deal for Idlib is provided at Al Jazeera.

Assad yesterday blamed Israel for the downing of a Russian plane, accidentally hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire during an Israeli missile strike on Monday. In a letter to Russian Russian President Vladimir Putin published by the official S.A.N.A agency, Assad claimed that “this unfortunate incident was the result of Israeli arrogance and depravity,” and added that “we are determined that such tragic events will sway neither you nor us from continuing the fight against terrorism,” AFP reports.

Putin has accepted Israel’s offer to share detailed information on the Israeli airstrike that triggered the fire by Syrian forces which downed the Russian reconnaissance plane, the Kremlin announced yesterday. Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

Leader of Lebanese Hezbollah militia group Hassan Nasrallah said yesterday that the group may cut down the number of its fighters in Syria due to an easing of the conflict. Nasrallah welcome the Turkish-Russian agreement signed on Monday, describing it as a “step on the road to making a political solution possible,” and adding that it “will take Syria in the next weeks and months to a new phase.” The AP reports.

Nasrallah ruled out Hezbollah forces leaving the country altogether, saying “we will stay [in Syria] even after the settlement in Idlib … our presence there is linked to the need and the consent of the Syrian leadership.” Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 66 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 10 and Sep. 16 [Central Command]

KAVANAUGH CONFIRMATION

The attorney for California Professor Christine Blasey Ford – who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault – has indicated that Ford is willing to co-operate with the Senate but wants a “full non-partisan investigation” ahead of giving testimony, describing the Senate’s “rush” to a hearing as “unnecessary.” Ford has been given until tomorrow to decide if she will testify, the BBC reports.

“Dr. Ford was reluctantly thrust into the public spotlight only two days ago,” her attorney Lisa Banks said in a statement, adding that Ford “is currently unable to go home … and is receiving ongoing threats to her and her family’s safety. Fairness and respect for her situation dictate that she should have time to deal with this,” Frank Thorp V, Dartunorro Clark and Rebecca Shabad report at NBC.

Republicans are pushing ahead with plans for Monday’s 10am hearing, with White House spokesperson Raj Shah stating the president will not look at naming any replacement nominee unless there is a clear need. Shah said the administration is going “full steam ahead” to support Kavanaugh, Natalie Andrews, Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes report at the Wall Street Journal.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chariman Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) said he could be flexible on how to handle the questioning of Ford but not on the date. In a letter to Democrats, Grassley offered to follow Ford’s preference on whether to hold a public hearing or to conduct the session behind closed doors, and added that she could be questioned by staff members rather than senators, but rejected Ford’s request that the F.B.I. investigate her accusations before any hearing, Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“I really want to see [Ford] … I really would want to see what she has to say,” President Trump commented, adding that “if she doesn’t show up, that would be unfortunate.” The White House is reportedly growing in confidence that Kavanaugh will survive the fallout, Nancy Cook reports at POLITICO.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) will vote against Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, restricting the number of potential Democratic votes Kavanaugh can secure. McCaskill – up for re-election this fall – cited Kavanaugh’s views on “dark, anonymous money that is crushing our democracy,” adding that Ford’s “troubling” allegation of sexual assault did not influence her decision, Burgess Everett reports at POLITICO.

Democrat demands for an F.B.I. investigation into Ford’s allegations represent “an inappropriate … even dangerous … attempt to politicize the bureau,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

“There is absolutely no rush here … no timeline that must be adhered to … no deadline that must be met,” Charles M. Blow argues at the New York Times, questioning Republican commitment to unearthing the truth behind the allegations.

An analysis of whether it is possible for the F.B.I. to investigate Ford’s allegation against Kavanaugh is provided by Pete Williams and Ken Dilanian at NBC.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former F.B.I. Director James Comey said that he believes special counsel Robert Mueller may be in “the fourth quarter” of his investigation into Russian intefernce in the 2016 presidential election. Speaking in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Comey cited former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort’s agreement to work with prosecutors –part of Manafort’s guilty plea deal last week – as evidence for his claim, commenting “the way you normally do investigations is you work from the bottom up, and so they’re getting pretty high,” Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

President Trump yesterday morning reiterated that he has no concerns about Manafort’s agreement to cooperate with the Mueller probe, telling reporters: “if he’s honest, and he is, I think he’s going to tell — as long as he tells the truth, it’s 100 percent.” Trump once again praised his former Campaign Chairman, commenting that “Paul Manafort was with me for a short period of time … He did a good job … I was very happy with the job he did … And I will tell you this, I believe that he will tell the truth,” Ramsen Shamon reports at POLITICO.

Former Trump aide Michael Flynn will be sentenced Dec. 18, having pleaded guilty to lying to F.B.I. agents about his links to Russia. The AP reports.

Some commentators have interpreted Mueller’s call for the court to move forward with Flynn’s sentencing as an indication that the special counsel is unlikely to call Flynn to testify at any future trials arising from his probe. However, commentators have also warned that the development should not be taken as a sign that Mueller is concluding his broader probe, Morgan Chalfant explains at the Hill.

The Russian government has reportedly conducted six consular visits to detained Russian agent Mariia Butina and passed four diplomatic notes to the U.S. Department of State about her case.  Alex Finley explains the significance of Moscow’s continued interest in Butina at POLITICO Magazine.

An in-depth analysis recapping “what we know” about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election – is provided by Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times.

A timeline showing “the full scale of Russia’s unprecedented interference in the 2016 election … and its aftermath” is provided by Karen Yourish, Larry Buchana and Derek Watkins at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) troops killed a Palestinian youth when they opened fire during a demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday, according to the Palestinian health ministry. An I.D.F. spokesperson claimed that Israeli troops came under attack by stones and firebombs on the border fence and they responded with “riot dispersal means,” Reuters reports.

Updates on the protests along the Gaza fence, which have seen 173 Palestinians killed by the I.D.F. since March 30., are provided at Al Jazeera.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been relegated to an after-thought … instead, Israeli officials highlight their burgeoning ties with Arab states,” Roula Khalaf comments at the Financial Times, arguing that “Palestinians should not take comfort from the fact that the Kushner plan is going nowhere … their cause is being punted into a distant future while Israel and Arab states cozy up to each other.”

YEMEN

Germany has approved a consignment of four artillery positioning systems to Saudi Arabia after saying it would halt arms sales to countries involved in the war in Yemen, a government document indicated yesterday. Reuters reports.

World Food Program (W.F.P) Executive Director David Beasley has warned of the devastating famine that is likely to worsen in Yemen, appealing to “all parties to end the fighting and support efforts to build peace.” Beasley cautioned that “only an immediate cessation of hostilities will give the humanitarian community the sustained access it needs to provide the food and other vital assistance needed to save Yemeni lives,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

IRAN

French President Emmanuel Macron will separately meet President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week, the French presidency announced yesterday. The meetings come as Macron along with other European leaders are attempting to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal since Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. in May, AFP reports.

U.S. special envoy for Iran Brian Hook said yesterday that the U.S. is seeking a deal with Iran to cover ballistic missile and nuclear programs ahead of next week’s General Assembly meeting in New York. “The new deal that we hope to be able to sign with Iran … will not be a personal agreement between two governments like the last one, we seek a treaty,” Hook told an audience at the Hudson Institute, Chris Mills Rodrigo reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The State Department yesterday released its annual survey of global terrorism. The report finds that there were 8,584 terrorist attacks around the world in 2017 – a 23% decline from the previous year – leading to the deaths of 18,700 people about a quarter of whom were the perpetrators of the attacks, Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper has commented that the space proposed by Poland’s administration for a U.S. military base in the country may not be sufficient for the proposed permanent facility that Polish President Andrzej Duda has offered to name “Fort Trump,” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated yesterday that the Taliban is prepared to attend multilateral peace talks on Afghanistan in Moscow, according to R.I.A. news agency. Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister is reportedly set to visit Moscow today to discuss the dates of the talks, Reuters reports.

President Trump has again criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with the president saying in an interview with Hill.tv on Tuesday that he “doesn’t have an attorney general” –blaming Sessions for the current state of affairs at the U.S. border and “other things” that have not been addressed by the Justice Department. Vivian Salama reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An account of Facebook’s “War Room” – the social media giant’s new hub for safeguarding elections – is provided by Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac at the New York Times. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

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).