The Cable

SitRep: Trump Rips South Korea, Saudi; Tillerson Says No Regime Change In North Korea; New Flynn Flop

State Wants to talk to U.N. Ambassador; Russian Spy Ship Sinks; McCain Staffers Move Into Trump Administration; Afghan Taliban Kick Up The Fight

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 19:  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finishes reading a statement about Iran and North Korea, at the State Department, on April 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 19: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finishes reading a statement about Iran and North Korea, at the State Department, on April 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


With Adam Rawnsley

Surprise! No surprise. President Donald Trump was firing on all cylinders in a new interview with Reuters published Thursday evening, suggesting, “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” calling for a renegotiation of a trade deal with Seoul, and demanding South Korea and Saudi Arabia pay up for U.S. military protection.

It was a return to campaign-style rhetoric for the president, and likely complicated relations between Washington and Seoul just days before the May 9 presidential election made necessary after President Park Geun-hye was impeached last month. The two leading candidates support reestablishing relations with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un, a move that would offer a new challenge for Washington policymakers.

Not well received. Trump’s remarks sent shockwaves through South Korea on Friday, causing the presidential frontrunners to suggest Washington ship recently deployed missile defense system home. Trump also said he’s looking to renegotiate a 2007 trade deal, calling it “horrible,” and “unacceptable.”

Crystal clear. If there was any ambiguity over U.S. policy about regime change in North Korea, they can be put to rest. At least for now. “We have been very clear as to what our objectives are,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NPR in an interview broadcast Friday morning. “We do not seek regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean peninsula and again that is entirely consistent with the objectives of others in the region as well.”

Tillerson also said the administration is open to negotiating directly with North Korea over its nuclear weapons, which would mark a major shift in Washington’s diplomatic efforts. “Obviously that will be the way we would like to solve this,” he told NPR.

Missile costs. When it comes to the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system recently deployed to  South Korea, the president appears to have confused the cost of the system itself with the cost of deploying it. The Lockheed Martin-built THAAD, which the Pentagon recently deployed on a temporary basis to defend against a possible missile attack from the North, runs about $800 million per system. But the United States didn’t gift the system to Seoul, and will redeploy it back home eventually.

Still, Trump told Reuters, “I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid. It’s a billion-dollar system.” South Korea pays about $900 million a year toward the basing of U.S. troops and equipment on its soil. The South Korean Defense Ministry issued a statement Friday saying, “there is no change in South Korea and the United States’ position that our government provides the land and supporting facilities and the U.S. bears the cost of THAAD system’s deployment, operation and maintenance.”

Saudi friends. Trump also dissed Saudi Arabia, complaining Washington was losing a “tremendous amount of money” defending the kingdom. “Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly,” the president said. The surprising comments about Saudi come as the Trump administration is working to forge warmer ties with the kingdom, after the relationship deteriorated during the Obama years, and is considering increasing its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

China. The top U.S. admiral in the Pacific told a Senate panel Thursday he “wouldn’t bet his farm” on China being able to convince North Korea to do away with its nuclear weapons program. Adm. Harry Harris said things have moved in a positive direction since Chinese President Xi Jinping met with president Trump earlier this month. “I have been skeptical up to the recent discussions between President Trump and President Xi,” Harris said, adding that “we’re seeing more activity proactive, more positive activity from China than we’ve seen in a long time. I remain cautiously optimistic, but certainly hopeful.”

Flynn flop. The Pentagon’s watchdog has opened a probe into whether former National Security Advisor retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn violated the law by accepting payments from a foreign government, reports FP’s Elias Groll. The investigation, revealed on Thursday by the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, is the latest setback for the disgraced former Trump campaign aide and White House advisor, whose dealings with Russian entities are under scrutiny in multiple probes.

In a letter to the oversight panel, the Department of Defense’s acting inspector general, Glenn Fine said he would examine whether Flynn failed to obtain the necessary approvals before a trip to Moscow in December 2015 paid for by Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT. At the time, Flynn was retired from the Army but he was still barred from accepting payments from foreign governments without permission from the secretary of the army and the secretary of state. RT functions as a mouthpiece of the Russian state.

State to remain empty for a good, long time. While Tillerson has making diplomatic comments about North Korea, he continues to remain aloof to State Department staffers, who are waiting for him to name his top lieutenants, or offer a signal of support for the work they do. The New York Times ticks off his greatest hits in three months in office.

“Mr. Tillerson has also been plagued by a series of embarrassing missteps and hour-by-hour tactical turnarounds that a trusted team might have prevented. He declared President Bashar al-Assad of Syria an enduring presence only to contradict himself within days, publicly disagreed with South Korea over whether he had been invited to dinner, and noted cryptically that Iran was complying with a landmark nuclear accord only to declare hours later that the deal had failed.”

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Talk to the hand. Trump’s interview with Reuters managed to pack in one more slight to an American ally. Trump told the wire service that he wouldn’t be up for another phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, despite her suggestion that another chat could be in the works. Trump’s phone call with Tsai during the transition raised eyebrows as a precedent-breaking insult to China, which does not recognize Taiwanese independence. Trump explained his decision by saying he was fond of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership on North Korean issues and “I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him.”

Surface warfare. A Togo-flagged cargo ship full of confused sheep has done what few naval forces can claim to have done: sunk a Russian Navy ship. The Youzarsif H was hauling over 8,800 sheep through the Bosporus in Turkey when it collided with the Liman, a Russian intelligence vessel. All involved, sheep and humans, made it out ok, with the 78 crew of the Liman rescued and the Youzarsif leaving the encounter relatively unscathed. It’s not clear what the Liman’s mission was but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim conveyed his “sadness” over the incident to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Talking points. The State Department is trying to make sure U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley doesn’t get ahead of Foggy Bottom, asking her staff to run any statements by headquarters before she makes them. Haley has been the administration’s most outspoken critic of Russia and the Assad regime, appearing at times to get out in front of the White House and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on marquee issues. The New York Times reports that Tillerson’s staff has asked Haley’s office to stick to basic talking points in public appearances and clear any significant departures from them with headquarters.

Personnel. The rift between President Donald Trump and Sen. John McCain over the president’s foreign policy priorities appears to be healing, with two former aides to McCain on the Senate Armed Services Committee set to joint the administration. Buzzfeed reports that the Trump White House will soon nominate Tom Goffus as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy and Kurt Volker in line for a job at the State Department, either assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs or the number three slot at the department. McCain and Trump had butted heads over a host of issues, most acutely the president’s apparent fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the personnel changes, along with a warmer tone from McCain about Trump’s foreign policy, appears to mark a turnaround in the relationship.

Fighting season. The Afghan Taliban has officially declared the start of its annual spring offensive. Fighting in Afghanistan is a cyclical, with the Taliban largely hunkering down during the winter and returning to major operations once the weather clears. Agence France Presse reports that the Taliban has named this year’s offensive “Operation Mansouri” after slain former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, killed in Pakistan in 2016 by a U.S. drone strike. High profile attacks like this month’s Taliban assault on an Afghan military base Mazar-i-Sharif indicate that this year could be an especially violent one.

Air defense. The skies over the border between Israel and Syria are tense once again following Israel’s downing of a drone that crossed over from Syria. The AP reports that Israel shot down a drone of unclear origin using a Patriot missile. The incident comes amidst growing tension between Israel and Syria over Iranian arms transfers to Hezbollah taking place in the country and follows an Israeli Air Force strike on Damascus international airport on Thursday.

Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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