The Early Edition: February 25, 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.

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

President Trump yesterday conveyed that he is “not in a rush” to denuclearize North Korea, and said he would be satisfied with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un simply ceasing tests of his nuclear arsenal, making the comments ahead of this week’s summit between the two leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam. “What’s going to happen, I can’t tell you,” Trump told attendees of the annual Governors’ Ball in the State Dining Room of the White House — apparently managing expectations for the talks scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Trump had appeared more optimistic earlier in the day, sending a series of messages on Twitter in which he claimed that “Chairman Kim realizes, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the World … because of its location and people (and him), it has more potential for rapid growth than any other nation!” Trump also used the tweets to raise the possibility he and Kim could come to an agreement on denuclearization, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump will arrive in Vietnam tomorrow evening, Vietnam’s foreign ministry announced today. The president will meet Vietnam President and General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong on Wednesday morning, the ministry said, Reuters reports.

The U.S. asked Russia for advice before the upcoming summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed today according to Interfax news agency. Lavrov also commented that there is quick solution to the Korean Peninsula issue, adding that the U.N. could have lifted some sanctions against North Korea that impede relations between Pyongyang and Seoul, Reuters reports.

Kim left Pyongyang by train on Saturday, starting a journey across China to Hanoi for the upcoming summit. The Northern leader will cover 2,800 miles over the next few days, passing through industrial cities in southern China and northern Vietnam before he reaching his final destination, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

Kim reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he does not want his children to live with the burden of nuclear weapons, former C.I.A. officer Andrew Kim – involved in high-level diplomacy over the North’s weapons – was quoted as saying Saturday. “‘I’m a father and a husband … and I have children’,” the official quoted the North Korean leader as telling Pompeo when asked whether he was willing to end his nuclear program, apparently adding “I don’t want my children to carry the nuclear weapon on their back their whole life,” Reuters reports.

Senior Senate Democrats yesterday demanded that the Trump administration “demonstrates tangible … verifiable progress on denuclearization and reducing tensions” with the North and urged the president to “execute a serious diplomatic plan” when he comes face-to-face with Kim. Lawmakers including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.,) Dianne Feinstein (Calif.,) Robert Menendez (N.J.,) and Mark Warner (Vir.) signed the letter, which states “as strong advocates for a diplomatic pathway to resolve the North Korea threat, we still believe there is a path forward for tough and principled diplomacy to secure, monitor, and verify the denuclearization of North Korea,” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

“The Democratic Party of the U.S. and other opponents to the negotiations move overtly and covertly to disrupt them as supported by skepticism backed by all sorts of groundless stories and misinformation even at such a crucial moment as now,” North Korean state media commented yesterday. The commentary, published under the name Jong Hyon, reportedly warned that critics of the talks between Trump and Kim could expose U.S. citizens to “security threats,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“The main success to date has been measured not by steps North Korea has taken since the two leaders first met in June … but by actions it hasn’t taken,” Michael R. Gordon and Vivian Salama comment in an analysis at the Wall Street Journal, pointing out that Kim’s various promises around denuclearization have not been codified in any formal agreement and could be reversed.

The upcoming congressional hearing of Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen “is likely to complicate and detract from Trump’s efforts to orchestrate an international peace pageant at the summit in Hanoi,” Stephen Collinson comments at CNN, adding that the hearing “could also inflict serious political damage on the President even as he is out of the country.”

SYRIA

President Trump has agreed to leave about 400 troops in Syria, comprising 200 in a multinational force in the northeastern part of the country and another 200 at a small outpost in the southeast, in order to counter Iran’s influence in the country, with the development representing the president’s “latest about-face” on a U.S. military pullout from the Middle Eastern country. The reversal came after European allies refused to send troops if the U.S. would not do so; U.S. national security adviser John Bolton reportedly pressed the president to make the decision on Thursday amid indication that the Pentagon’s negotiations to put together a stabilization and monitoring force were struggling due to European resistance, Mark Landler and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

“U.S. ground forces … not the numbers U.S. ground forces … was the precondition,” one senior defense official said of the negotiations with European allies, adding: “we will tailor this mission in Syria based on the resources we have.” French and U.K. officials said Friday that they were seeking more information about U.S. plans before making a commitment to remain in the country, Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian forces warned yesterday they were struggling to cope with the influx of people from the Islamic State group’s (I.S.I.S.) collapsing “caliphate,” urging foreign governments to take responsibility for their citizens. The Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) have evacuated nearly 5,000 men, women and children from the last I.S.I.S.-controlled patch of land since Wednesday; “the numbers of foreign fighters and their relatives that we are holding is increasing drastically … our current infrastructure can’t handle the mass influx,” Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar stated, AFP reports.

At least 20 people were killed yesterday in Syria by a landmine planted by I.S.I.S., which exploded under a van carrying farm workers, according state-run S.A.N.A. news agency. The blast took place near the central town of Salamiyeh in Hama province, Al Jazeera reports.

Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar told Pentagon officials there must not be a vacuum of power during the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported Saturday, Reuters reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has stated that he will bring special counsel Robert Mueller before the committee if his report is not made public, in the wake of Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Schiff was asked yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” about what Democrats will do should Attorney General William Barr decide to keep the Mueller report mostly under wraps; “well we will obviously subpoena the report, we will bring Bob Mueller in to testify before Congress, we will take it to court if necessary,” Schiff answered adding, “in the end, I think the department understands they’re going to have to make this public … I think Barr will ultimately understand that as well,” Allan Smith reports at NBC.

Mueller’s prosecutors have alleged that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort acted in “bold” manner to commit a multitude of crimes, though they claim they take no position on what his prison sentence should be. Manafort is scheduled to be sentenced next month after pleading guilty in a Washington, D.C. court last year to charges of conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice; in a sentencing memo submitted made public on Saturday, prosecutors told Judge Amy Berman Jackson that Manafort “chose repeatedly and knowingly to violate the law— whether the laws proscribed garden-variety crimes such as tax fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, and bank fraud, or more esoteric laws that he nevertheless was intimately familiar with, such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (F.A.R.A),” Shannon Van Sant reports at NPR.

An in-depth analysis on the role of Russian intelligence-linked associate Konstantin Kilimnik, “the enigmatic figure at the heart of Mueller’s Inquiry,” is provided by Kenneth P. Vogel and Andrew E. Kramer at the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN

The conflict in Afghanistan claimed exactly 3,804 civilian lives in 2018, including 927 children, setting a “tragic record for the year,” according to data compiled by the UN.  The number represents an increase of 11 per cent compared to 2017, the U.N. News Centre reports.

As senior Taliban leaders are set to hold another round of talks today in Qatar with Washington’s special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in an attempt to resolve the country’s conflict, an explainer on what the talks might achieve is provided at the Economist.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Saudi Arabia has named Princess Reema bint Bandar as its new ambassador to the U.S. The U.S-educated entrepreneur will be the first Saudi woman to head a diplomatic mission and will face the “challenge of navigating strained relations between the two allies amid the fallout over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” Jared Malsin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is facing intensifying international pressure after his troops pushed back foreign aid convoys at the country’s borders, with the U.S. threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort.” Opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó yesterday urged the international community to consider “all measures” for Maduro’s overthrow, after skirmishes at border crossings left at least three protesters dead and 300 others wounded near the Brazilian border, Al Jazeera reports.

A federal judge Friday ruled that a law requiring men but not women to register for federal draft is unconstitutional. Tyler Pager reports at the New York Times. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Associate 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).