The Early Edition: January 2, 2019

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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 seemed to extend an olive branch to the U.S. in his televized New Year’s address, claiming that Pyongyang is holding back from producing nuclear weapons, in a gesture that some have interpreted as a “potential opening” for resuming talks with U.S. President Trump. Michael R. Gordon and Andrew Jeong report at the Wall Street Journal.

Kim claimed that he is ready to meet with Trump at any time to thrash out a settlement “welcomed by the international community.” However, Kim stressed that the North will be forced to pursue a different strategy if the U.S. “continues to break its promises and misjudges the patience of our people by unilaterally demanding certain things and pushes ahead with sanctions and pressure,” Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

The U.S. must “keep its promise made in front of the whole world,” Kim stated, cautioning that if Washington continue to insist on “on sanctions and pressures … we may be left with no choice but to consider a new way to safeguard our sovereignty and interests.” Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

Kim also said the U.S. should continue to slow its joint military exercises with ally South Korea and refrain from deploying strategic military assets to Seoul. With regard to North-South relations, Kim called for stronger cooperation on the Peninsula and said the North is ready to resume operations at a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and restart South Korean tours to the North’s Diamond Mountain resort – both impossible prospects for South Korea unless sanctions are removed, the AP reports.

Trump finds himself “essentially back where he was at the beginning in achieving the ambitious goal of getting … Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal,” David E. Sanger writes in an analysis at the New York Times, arguing that the “recent North Korean demands,” which closely resemble those from past confrontations, serve as “a clear indicator of how the [Trump-Kim] summit meeting in Singapore last June altered the optics of the relationship more than the reality.”

“Four big takeaways” from Kim’s address: “it’s still about the economy;” “Kim wants the Koreas to be taking the lead;” “the nukes aren’t going to go any time soon;” and “Kim wants to be seen as his own man,” are identified and explored by Eric Talmadge at the AP.

“As he considers what terms to accept from the North … Trump should never forget the cruel nature of the Kim regime,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, citing the case of former U.S. student Otto Warmbier, whose parents have obtained a $501 million judgment against North Korea for the “torture, hostage taking and extrajudicial killing” of their son.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

“Ever since Special Counsel Robert Mueller began investigating the Kremlin’s interference in the U.S. election … Trump World has basically played nice,” Betsy Woodruff comments at The Daily Beast, noting that once Mueller’s team sends its report to the attorney general (who will decide whether or not to give it to Congress,) “the Trump administration’s conflict with Mueller could burst the bounds of Twitter and show up in court.”

On the Sunday before Christmas Chief Justice John Roberts personally intervened in a “mysterious” grand jury subpoena case involving Mueller – a case that has been working itself through the D.C. courts since August – with Roberts taking the “unusual” action of blocking the District Court’s order requiring the foreign corporation to comply with the grand jury subpoena, until the government’s lawyers are able to respond to the Corporation’s briefings. Nelson W. Cunningham provides an analysis of the development at POLITICO Magazine, noting that the implications of the Mueller probe reaching the Supreme Court may become clearer shortly, given that “Mueller’s office filed its submission early, on Friday evening.”

“It’s already pretty obvious that [Mueller is] not going to tell us anything that will greatly shift our understanding of the 2016 race,” Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. comments at the Wall Street Journal. The focal point of interest, Jenkins argues, should be the actions of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., and the “still-classified appendix of the Justice Department inspector general’s report on [former F.B.I. Director James] Comey are the beginnings of an untold and important story: how U.S. intelligence agencies, using Russia as an excuse, fiddled ineptly and improperly in our election and quite conceivably undermined the Hillary victory they were so obviously trying to secure.”

An explainer on “what to expect from Mueller in 2019” is provided by Ken Dilanian at NBC.

A timeline of the “Mueller probe’s biggest developments” is provided by Olivia Beavers and Jacqueline Thomsen at the Hill.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan – arrested in Russia on espionage charges – was visiting Moscow over the holidays to attend a wedding when he suddenly disappeared, his brother said yesterday. Whelan (48), who is head of global security for a Michigan-based auto parts supplier, was arrested Friday, with the Russian Federal Security Service announcing three days later that Whelan was caught “during an espionage operation.” The AP reports.

“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” Whelan’s family said in a statement posted on Twitter, adding: “his innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.” The arrest comes as U.S.-Russian ties are “severely strained” over electoral interference and the U.S. detention of Russian gun-rights activist Mariia Butina, Al Jazeera reports.

A profile on Whelan is provided by Adam Rawnsley, Betsy Woodruff and Kevin Poulsen at The Daily Beast.

N.A.S.A. administrator Jim Bridenstine’s plan to host his sanctioned counterpart Russian Dmitry Rogozin in the U.S. in the coming months is “raising alarms among Russia hawks in Washington,” Ben Schreckinger writes at POLITICO, explaining that Rogozin is “no typical rocket-science technocrat … he is an ultranationalist politician with a record of stark racism and homophobia who is under [U.S.] sanctions, which typically bar him from entering the U.S. over his 2014 role, as deputy prime minister, in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.”

SYRIA

President Trump will allow the military about four months to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, backtracking on his “abrupt” order two weeks ago that the military pull out within 30 days, administration officials said Monday. Trump seemed to confirm the position in a message sent on Twitter, suggesting that troops would be withdrawn “slowly,” also complaining that he got little credit for his Syria strategy, following a fresh round of criticism from retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Fighting flared out between two powerful insurgent groups in northern Syria yesterday, killing as many as seven people in the “most serious fighting” the rebel-held area of Aleppo has seen in months. Al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey-backed Nour el-Din el-Zinki group have blamed each other for triggering the fighting, with both groups having heavy weapons including tanks in the fight, according to activist collectives in the region, the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 208 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec 9. and Dec. 15. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN        

Taliban fighters killed more than 20 Afghan security forces in simultaneous raids on a provincial capital and district in northern Afghanistan, an official said yesterday, as the city prepared itself for further violence. The Taliban have accelerated attacks on security forces across the country, killing soldiers and police in record numbers, as the threat of a U.S. drawdown “complicates” international efforts to end the 17-year conflict, AFP reports.

Top U.S commander in Afghanistan Gen. Scott Miller yesterday told N.A.T.O. troops to prepare themselves to deal with “positive processes or negative consequences,” as peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban to end the conflict gain momentum. Miller reiterated the need for a political settlement to end the conflict, commenting that “peace talks [are] out there, regional players pressing for peace, the Taliban talking about peace, the Afghan government is talking about peace,” Reuters reports.

Afghanistan’s regional neighbors have begun preparing for the risk that a U.S. pullout could result in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing across their borders, according to diplomats. Reuters reports.

“Let’s honest with ourselves … Afghanistan is like the huge and hugely expensive aircraft carriers we continue to build .., increasingly obsolete in an era of sophisticated missile technology and hypersonic warfare,” Robert D. Kaplan writes at the New York Times, arguing that it is time for the U.S. to withdraw from the country.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Honduras will hold joint talks with Israel and the U.S. geared toward opening an embassy in Jerusalem, the countries announced yesterday, with the Central American nation hoping to follow U.S. President Trump’s “much-criticized” relocation of Israel’s U.S. embassy last year, Reuters reports.

“For Palestinians – and many Israelis – a peace deal is a sideshow,” Oliver Holmes comments at the Guardian, arguing that “the bigger issue, which does not depend on peace, is the implementation of Israel’s wishes by the most accommodating U.S. administration in its history.” The Trump administration’s long-awaited Middle Eastern peace plan, Holmes claims, should be seen in conjunction with a plan already in motion on the ground: “to strengthen Israel’s hand while weakening that of the Palestinians.”

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

A Turkish television network broadcast video footage Monday showing men with suitcases supposedly containing the remains of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Alan Yuhas reports at the New York Times.

The “sensational” disappearance of journalist Georgi Gongadze in Ukraine in 2000 provides a warning for those following Khashoggi’s murder, Mary Mycio explains in an Op-Ed at POLITICO Magazine.

U.S. MIDDLE EAST POLICY: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the U.S. would continue to cooperate with Israel over Syria and in countering Iran in the Middle East, even as President Trump plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. In his first public comments on Trump’s decision, Pompeo claimed it “in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel,” adding “the counter-I.S.I.S. [Islamic State group] campaign continues, our efforts to counter Iranian aggression continue and our commitment to Middle East stability and the protection of Israel continues in the same way it did before that decision was made,” Reuters reports.

An upgraded class of antitank guided missiles (A.T.G.M.) has become increasingly present on the battlefields of the Middle East, “threatening even the most sophisticated battle tanks and highlighting a gap in U.S. military preparedness,” Ben Kesling explains in an analysis at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. MILITARY

“As acting secretary of defense … I now look forward to working with President Trump to carry out his vision alongside strong leaders including the service secretaries … and senior personnel in the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan wrote in a welcome memo marking his first day on the job yesterday. “The Department of Defense continues to be one of our nation’s bedrock institutions … our foundational strength lies in the remarkable men and women who volunteer to serve our country and protect our freedoms,” Shanahan added in a message that also contained words of praise for Shanahan’s predecessor Jim Mattis, who resigned last month in response to Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“Our Department’s leadership … civilian and military … remains in the best possible hands,” Mattis wrote in his own farewell message Monday, adding “I am confident that each of you remains undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life … so keep the faith in our country and hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes.” Connor O’Brien reports at POLITICO.

U.S. Strategic Command has apologized for New Year’s Eve tweet comparing the famed Times Square ball drop to a bomber dropping weapons. “TimesSquare tradition rings in the #NewYear by dropping the big ball…if ever needed, we are #ready to drop something much, much bigger,” the now-deleted tweet from Stratcom’s official account claimed; following a swift backlash, the unified command sent a further message stating: “our previous N.Y.E. tweet was in poor taste & does not reflect our values … we apologize … we are dedicated to the security of America & allies,” Amy Held reports at NPR.

“President Donald Trump is at war with the generals,” Peter Bergen writes in an analysis at CNN, following Trump’s most recent clash with retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels yesterday said they were “surprised” by accusations from the U.N. food agency that they are stealing humanitarian aid and accused the body of taking sides in the conflict. The World Food Program on Monday threatened to suspend certain aid shipments to Yemen if the rebels failed to investigate and prevent theft and fraud in food distribution, warning that the suspension would affect around 3 million people, Samy Magdy reports at the AP.

The West must shift its focus from Middle Eastern terrorism to attacks from the former Soviet Union, Vera Mironova comments at Foreign Policy.

“Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy — or its progressive cousin, retrenchment — is broadly popular in both parties,” former Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy national security adviser Antony J. Blinken and Robert Kagan write at the Washington Post, arguing however that “doubling down on ‘America First,’ with its mix of nationalism, unilateralism and xenophobia” is likely to exacerbate the problems of rising demagoguery, a divided Europe and the threats of cyberwarfare and climate change. The authors propose a new foreign policy “of responsible global engagement,” resting on four pillars:  preventive diplomacy and deterrence; trade and technology; allies and institutions; and immigration and refugees. 

About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Senior Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).