The Early Edition: September 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

South Korean President Moon Jae-in yesterday announced that he will carry a private message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to President Trump when he meets the U.S. president in New York next week at the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly session. Speaking at a press center in Seoul on his return from his three-day summit with Kim in the North, Moon said that “there are things that the U.S. wants us to convey to North Korea, and on the other side there are also things that North Korea wants us to convey to the U.S.,” adding “I will faithfully serve that role when I meet President Trump to facilitate dialogue between North Korea and the U.S.,” Foster Klug and Eric Talmadge report at the AP.

Moon disclosed that Kim is prepared to allow inspection of the Punggye-ri nuclear weapons-testing site by international inspectors – a site not mentioned in the joint agreement signed by both Koreas earlier in the week. “The site is North Korea’s only nuclear-weapons testing site,” Moon told reporters, adding that “they’ve shut it down completely and said they can allow inspection at any time,” Andrew Jeong and Dasl Yoon report at the Wall Street Journal.

“Chairman Kim expressed his wish that he wanted to complete denuclearization quickly and focus on economic development,” Moon claimed, adding that Kim had “said he hoped [U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo would visit North Korea soon, and also a second summit with Trump would take place in the near future, in order to move the denuclearization process along quickly.” James Griffiths reports at CNN.

“Once North Korea takes denuclearization measures, the U.S. needs to guarantee security of North Korea accordingly,” Moon added regarding the ongoing Washington-Pyongyang negotiations. Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

The White House had said earlier this month that preparations for a second Trump-Kim summit is underway and is “certainly something we want to take place,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“Having I.A.E.A. [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors and United States inspectors be a part of anything is really just a shared understanding,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert commented regarding the North’s apparent willingness to allow outside inspections, adding that “any time you have a nuclear situation like this where there is a dismantlement, the expectation is that the I.A.E.A. would be part of that, so that would be just the normal course of doing business … we have that shared understanding with the countries,” Reuters reports.

“It is clear for me that there will not be success in inter-Korean negotiations if simultaneously there is not success in the American-North Korea … negotiations,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres cautioned yesterday, adding that such negotiations would have to be geared “to achieve the full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the context of regional security.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The Pentagon has offered a meeting with North Korean officials in the last week of October in a third-party country to negotiate joint excavation operations to recover further Korean War remains, Defense P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Agency (D.P.A.A.) Director Kelly McKeague announced yesterday, adding that the agency would hope to start the operations in spring 2019. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Trump yesterday announced the names of the first two service members identified from the war remains returned by the North to the U.S., following Trump’s June summit meeting with Kim in Singapore. Making the announcement in a message on Twitter, Trump identified the service members as Army Master Sgt. Charles H. McDaniel of Vernon, Ind., and Army Pfc. William H. Jones of Nash County, N.C., Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Pyongyang’s unspecified demands – alluded to by Moon – may include complete relief from international economic sanctions and a permanent end to “provocative” joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises. Analysis at Al Jazeera.

Trump’s bilateral meeting with Moon next week may prove to be the most important of his talks with foreign leaders at the U.N. General Assembly. Mark Landler and Gardiner Harris explain at the New York Times.

Organizing a visit by Kim to Seoul will present officials with a “surreal challenge.” Kim Tong-Hyung provides an analysis at the AP.

An account of the ongoing Russian-U.S. dispute regarding alleged North Korean evasion of international sanctions, which the U.S. claims has been abetted by Moscow, is provided by Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy.

SYRIA

Syrian opposition militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has criticized the deal struck this week between Russia and Turkey to avert a government offensive in northwestern Idlib Province, that would create a demilitarized zone and remove both heavy weapons and designated terrorist groups from a 10-to-12 mile area by mid-October. In a development that could threaten the success of that plan, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has said that it regards the deal as a scheme to weaken opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and has also suggested that abandoning its weapons would be un-Islamic, Raja Abdulrahim reports at the Wall Street Journal.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas today praised Turkey for its role in Idlib, commenting at a press conference in Berlin that “Turkey has played an extraordinarily positive role regarding discussions in Syria and Idlib … ultimately Turkey managed to agree with Russia on a demilitarized zone and that’s extremely important.” Reuters reports.

Kurdish-led authorities controlling northeastern Syria will not be able to hold foreign Islamic State group fighters indefinitely, and their home nations should take them back, Joint Head of Foreign Relations in the Kurdish-led area – Abdulkarim Omar – said yesterday, telling journalists that the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) are holding around 500 foreign fighters and 500 family members from around 40 countries in detention, following last year’s defeat of Islamic State group in nearly all its former territory in Syria and Iraq, Reuters reports.

A high-level Israeli military delegation visited Moscow yesterday to present detailed information related to the downing of the Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane by Syrian forces in response to an Israeli air raid. “The meetings were held in good spirits and the representatives shared a professional, open and transparent discussion on various issues,” the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) announced, adding that “both sides emphasized the importance of the states’ interests and the continued implementation of the deconfliction system,” Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

Leader of Lebanese militant Hezbollah group Hassan Nasrallah yesterday announced that the group has obtained precision-guided missiles in spite of Israeli attempts to keep advanced weapons out of its hands. “I tell [Israel] no matter what it did to cut the route, it is over … it has already been achieved,” Nasrallah said during his traditional televised speech commemorating Shi’ite holy day Ashoura, adding without elaboration that Hezbollah “now possesses precision missiles and non-precision weapons capabilities,” Al Jazeera reports.

“It will be hard for western governments to accept that Assad has won after seven years of demanding that he resign,” Jonathan Steele comments at the Guardian, arguing that the U.K., France and the U.S. must nevertheless push for peace in Idlib.

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

California Professor Christine Blasey Ford – who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault – is prepared to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, on the condition that senators offer “terms that are fair and which ensure her safety,” her attorney told the committee yesterday. Ford ruled out a Senate hearing on Monday as a possibility, but also appeared to leave open the option of testifying even if the F.B.I. does not investigate her accusations, as she had previously requested, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports at the New York Times.

Ford’s lawyers have requested a Thursday hearing in which Kavanaugh would appear first – a format that may not be acceptable to Republicans. Ford is reportedly opposed to be being questioned by outside counsel and has raised the possibility of having just a single camera in the hearing room, Burgess Everett and Elana Schor report at POLITICO.

The move restarts negotiations between Ford’s legal team and the committee after a more than 24-hour impasse that left in doubt whether the public hearing would indeed take place. Lauren Gambino and Erin Durkin report at the Guardian.

“Thank you for the invitation to appear before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Monday, September 24 … I will be there,” Kavanaugh said in a statement following the announcement from Ford’s lawyers, adding: “I look forward to the opportunity to testify before the Committee … I continue to want a hearing as soon as possible, so that I can clear my name,” Kasie Hunt, Rebecca Shabad and Peter Alexander report at NBC.

“We’ll let it play out, and I think everything is going to be just fine … [Kavanaugh] is a high quality person,” President Trump told supporters at a rally in Las Vegas, steering clear of directly criticizing Ford ­– reportedly on the advice of aides, Reuters reports.

“Without the context that the findings of an F.B.I. investigation could provide … the Senate hearing planned for Monday … runs the risk of being seen as little more than Kabuki theatre,” retired federal judge Nancy Gertner argues at the New York Times.

Even in the absence of civil or criminal liability, “putting Judge Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court in light of credible allegations against him could raise troublesome questions about the court’s legitimacy,” Kate Shaw comments at the New York Times.

Can the Senate enlist the F.B.I. to investigate the Kavanaugh allegations? Philip Ewing and Deirdre Walsh provide a fact-checker at NPR.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has reportedly met numerous times with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators, according to people familiar with the matter. Mueller’s team, investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, have apparently asked Cohen questions touching on the president’s business dealings with Russia, Rebecca Ballhaus, Nicole Hong and Joe Palazzolo report at the Wall Street Journal.

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said yesterday that Cohen had provided “critical information” to the probe, Khaddim Shubber reports at the Financial Times.

The development follows Cohen’s guilty plea last month to eight felonies and his disclosures implicating the president in various “hush money” payments. Although Cohen’s plea deal did not specifically call for cooperation with Mueller’s probe, Cohen had long intimated that he would assist the special counsel if requested, Maggie Haberman, Sharon LaFraniere and Matthew Rosenberg report at the New York Times.

With Democrats looking set to make major gains in the November midterm elections – they may be empowered to re-open the House’s Russia probe and “work through a checklist of witnesses and subpoenas Republicans refused to grant them.” Darren Samuelsohn and Kyle Cheney explain at POLITICO.

“Mueller is quite likely on the verge of handing down new major indictments,” Nick Akerman comments at NBC, suggesting that Trump should be worried by the speed and professionalism of the probe.

CHINA and RUSSIA SANCTIONS

The U.S. has sanctioned the Chinese military for the purchase of Russian fighter planes and missiles, and blacklisted more than 30 Russians – most of whom have been indicted for their role in Moscow’s attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The fresh sanctions announced yesterday by the State Department look likely to intensify tensions with Beijing amid a brewing trade war – and further “sour” relations with Moscow, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

China today urged the U.S. to withdraw the sanctions or “bear the consequences.” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told journalists that “the Chinese side expresses strong indignation over the above-mentioned unreasonable practices of the U.S. side;” meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented in a statement that “it would be good for [the U.S.] to remember there is such a concept as global stability which they are thoughtlessly undermining by whipping up tensions in Russian-American ties,” Al Jazeera reports.

An account of growing closeness in Russia-China relations is provided by Elena Holodny at NBC.

YEMEN

The campaign to drive rebels from the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah will not be stopped until it is captured from the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, leader of the Giants Brigade militia – Aidarous al-Zubaidi – commented yesterday. Zubaidi has 20,000 soldiers amassed near the strategic city, providing the major ground force led by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) – a key member of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “certification” backing continued U.S. military support for the coalition fighting in Yemen came despite objections of staff members, after Pompeo was warned that a cessation of aid could jeopardize a $2 billion weapons sales to the U.S.’ Gulf allies, according to a classified memo and people familiar with the decision. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said she would not comment on “the deliberative process or allegedly leaked documents,” Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

IRAN

The Iranian air force is carrying out a drill near the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the country’s official I.R.N.A. news agency reported today, describing the maneuver as a warning to the country’s enemies that they face a quick, “stern response” in case of any antagonism toward Tehran, the AP reports.

Iran deflected a U.S. offer of negotiations yesterday, claiming Washington had violated the terms of the last big agreement between the parties – the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the U.S.’ characterization of that deal as a “personal agreement,” claiming in a message on Twitter that it was “an int’l accord enshrined in a U.N. [Security Council resolution],” and adding that the “U.S. has violated its treaty obligations too… apparently, U.S. only mocks calls for peace,” Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Several European Union (E.U.) member states have reiterated their opposition to Israel’s planned demolition of the Palestinian village of Khan al-Ahmar and are urging the Israeli government to reconsider. France, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the U.K., Belgium, Germany and Italy have published a statement stating that they “will not give up on a negotiated two-state solution with Jerusalem as a [joint] capital,” the AP reports.

Recently declassified archives show how the Egyptian-Israeli peace brokered through the Camp David accords 40 years ago came at the expense of Palestinian self-determination. Seth Anziska provides an analysis at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The White House confirmed yesterday that it has rescinded a classified Obama-era memorandum dictating the circumstances in which the U.S. government can deploy cyber weaponry, in the administration’s first public acknowledgment of the move. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton claimed during a press briefing that the old rules have been replaced by new classified guidance that “effectively reversed those restraints, effectively enabling offensive cyber operations through the relevant departments,” adding that “our hands are not tied as they were in the Obama administration,” Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Air Force’s $13 billion projection for the cost of President Trump’s desired Space Force is an example of “malicious compliance,” defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies – Todd Harrison – told reporters yesterday.  Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump will hold a summit meeting on Sept. 26, Japan’s top government spokesperson announced today. Reuters reports. 

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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).