The Early Edition: March 7, 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

South Korea’s military announced today that it is carefully monitoring North Korean nuclear and missile facilities after the country’s spy agency informed lawmakers that fresh activity was picked up at a research center at Samdong where the North is thought to manufacture long-range missiles. South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said the U.S. and South Korean militaries are closely coordinating intelligence over the developments at the North’s missile research center and also at a separate long-range rocket site at Sohae, Kim Tong Hyung reports at the AP.

The South’s National Intelligence Service also confirmed that the North continued to enrich uranium before last month’s Hanoi summit between U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, with the reports citing a lawmaker. The development marks the first official confirmation by South Korean authorities that Pyongyang has been continuing to enrich uranium, Reuters reports.

President Trump said yesterday that he would be “very … very disappointed” if the North is indeed rebuilding the long-range rocket site at Sohae thought to have been dormant since last summer. Responding to a question about a report regarding the building, Trump said “it’s too early to see” if the North is breaking its promise to dismantle the site – also describing the situation as “a very nasty problem” but expressing optimism that the issue will be resolved, Courtney Kube reports at NBC.

An estimated 11 million people in the North – over 43 percent of the population are undernourished, with widespread “chronic food insecurity and malnutrition” according to a U.N. report issued yesterday. The report by the head of the U.N. office in North Korea Tapan Mishra reported that “widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition” and found that with scant health care and a lack of access to clean water and sanitation “children are also at risk of dying from curable diseases,” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

The deepening economic crisis in the North may force Kim’s hand and see him returning to the negotiating table over denuclearization, Choe Sang-Hun writes in an analysis at the New York Times.

“Skeptics of Mr. Trump’s play-for-time approach say he runs the risk that North Korea will expand its nuclear capabilities to the point that the country emerges with unofficial recognition as a de facto nuclear state” – a scenario that Washington has for years branded as unacceptable – Timothy W. Martin and Andrew Jeong comment in an analysis of the post-Hanoi developments at the Wall Street Journal.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has provided the House Intelligence Committee with new documents and may hand over more, according to the committee’s Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) Schiff told reporters that Cohen was cooperative and yesterday’s eight-hour hearing was “very productive” although he did not say what the new documents related to and declined to comment on the substance of Cohen’s testimony, Andrew Desiderio reports at POLITICO.

“We had requested documents of Mr Cohen … he has provided additional documents to the committee … there may be additional documents that he still has to offer and his cooperation with our committee continues,” Schiff said. However, several news outlets reported the documents showed alleged edits to the false written statement Cohen delivered to Congress in 2017, in which he claimed that talks around the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, the Guardian reports.

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday that he intends to cooperate with the House Judiciary Committee’s probe into possible corruption, abuses of power, hush money payments and collusion with Russia on the part of the president. “I will do everything to facilitate this investigation, and there’s nothing I have to hide,” Spicer commented in an interview on Fox News, having been one of the 81 recipients of letters from the Committee Monday requesting documents relating to Trump’s campaign, businesses, transition and administration, Katie Bernard reports at CNN.

An explainer on the possibilities for the sentencing of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort – found guilty on two counts of bank fraud, five counts of tax fraud and one count of failing to declare a foreign bank account, is provided by Ryan Lucas at NPR.

An in-depth legal analysis as to whether Trump Organization executives –including Chief Financial Officer Allan Weisselberg – could be prosecuted for money laundering is provided by Martin J. Sheil at Just Security.

NATIONAL EMERGENCY AND BORDER WALL

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress yesterday that the U.S. faces a “real … serious and sustained crisis at our borders,” standing by President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to get hold of funds for long-promised border security measures. “This is not a manufactured crisis … this is truly an emergency,” Nielsen said in response to Democratic questioning regarding her advice to the president on his national emergency declaration and the administration’s immigration policy more generally, Louise Radnofsky and Joshua Jamerson report at the Wall Street Journal.

Nielsen testified that the government does not use “cages” to hold children as lawmakers opposite interrogated her about the Trump administration’s family separation practices. Nielsen and House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) at one point sparred over the conditions used to detain migrant children: “to my knowledge, [Customs and Border Protection] never purposefully put a child in a cage if you mean a cage like this,” Nielsen claimed while making the shape of a box with her hands, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Vice President Mike Pence yesterday criticized lawmakers from both parties who intend to support a resolution to block the president’s emergency declaration. “A vote against the president’s emergency declaration is a vote against border security,” Pence stated in a speech at the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit in Washington, adding “a vote against the president’s emergency declaration is a vote to deny the real humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border … and so we call on every member of the U.S. Senate to set politics aside, stand up for border security, stand with this president and put the safety and security of the American people first,” Dartunorro Clark reports at NBC.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Trump’s readiness to defy the assessment of his intelligence officials on providing security clearances to his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner is deeply concerning, the New York Times editorial board argues, concluding that although “voters can get squeamish watching a politician’s wife or daughter or son-in-law field tough questions … that’s no excuse for letting them avoid accountability.”

An in-depth analysis of the “flawed” White House response to the security clearance furore is provided by Founding Editor Andy Wright at Just Security.

VENEZUELA

Venezuela expelled Germany’s ambassador Daniel Kriener yesterday, apparently lashing out against international support for opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó. In a parallel development, Washington demanded the “immediate release” of a U.S. journalist Cody Weddle reported to have been detained in Caracas, AFP reports.

Weddle was released yesterday evening following his arrest in the morning, Miami television station W.P.L.G. Local 10 reported. The outlet stated that he was at the main Caracas-area airport waiting for a U.S.-bound flight, Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton yesterday announced that foreign banks that do business with the Venezuelan regime “will face sanctions for being involved in facilitating illegitimate transactions that benefit … Maduro and his corrupt network.” Bolton added “we will not allow Maduro to steal the wealth of the Venezuelan people,” Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

SYRIA

About 400 Islamic State group militants have been captured in an attempt to escape the last patch of land controlled by the group in Syria, according to U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces rebel group (S.D.F.). An S.D.F. commander said the fighters were caught overnight as they attempted to slip out of the village of Baghouz with the assistance of smugglers, the BBC reports.

“There are a large number of fighters who are inside [Baghouz] and do not want to surrender,” an S.D.F. commander commented on the situation – despite the hundreds of fighters who allegedly surrendered yesterday amongst the 2,000+ people who left the village in the latest evacuation. Angry civilians evacuating reportedly chanted “Islamic State will remain,” illustrating the “defiance” of the Islamic State group and its supporters even as defeat draws near, Al Jazeera reports.

An analysis of the ongoing power struggle over the future of northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, played out between Russia, Turkey and Iran, is provided by Henry Foy, Chloe Cornish, Asser Khattab and Laura Pitel at the Financial Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 211 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Feb. 10 and Feb. 23. [Central Command]

The KINGDOM

President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia yesterday defended the U.S.’ continuing ties to the nation as senators continue to rage against the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and leading role in the Yemen civil war. During his confirmation hearing, retired Gen. John Abizaid called for accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and backing for human rights in Saudi Arabia, while simultaneously also stressing the importance of U.S.-Saudi links: “war in Yemen, the senseless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, rifts in the Gulf alliance, alleged abuses of innocent people to include an American citizen and female activists all present immediate challenges … yet in the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The committees’ ranking Democrat Bob Menendez (N.J) acknowledged the strategic importance of U.S.-Saudi relations amid threats from Iran. However, “we cannot let these interests blind us to our values or to our long-term interests in stability,” Menendez claimed, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) described the kingdom as the U.S.’ “most difficult” ally, Al Jazeera reports.

RUSSIA

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has claimed that his country reserves the right to deploy missiles prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (I.N.F.) that the Trump administration has pulled out of. Lavrov claimed that if U.S. withdrawal from the accord gives it a free hand to begin deploying such missiles, “we reserve the right to do the same so that our missiles are deployed in the same region,” adding: “I reiterate, this is not our choice,” the AP reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday appealed to his country’s top domestic security agency F.S.B. to tighten its protection of data related to new weapons and other sensitive data.  Vladimir Isachenkov reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Chinese tech giant Huawei is today set to announce a lawsuit against the U.S., intensifying its response to a campaign aimed at shutting it out of Western markets for fear of its links to the Beijing administration and intelligence, Reuters reports.

The Trump administration will not be requesting a significant boost to the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (M.D.A.) budget this year, despite the decision to withdraw from the I.N.F. Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

President Trump yesterday ended an Obama-era requirement that the U.S. government publish an annual report on the number of people killed in drone strikes or other counterterrorism operations outside of war zones. The president issued an executive order to revoke the requirement, ending months of speculation that he would do so, Charlie Savage reports at the New York Times. 

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).