SitRep: Trump, North Korea, and Target Lists

SitRep: Trump, North Korea, and Target Lists


With Adam Rawnsley

War of words. Within hours of President Donald Trump’s promise that if North Korea continues to add to its nuclear and ballistic missile capability, “they will be met with fire, fury…the likes of which the world has never seen,” Pyongyang issued its first specific threat against a U.S. target in recent memory. The announcement put Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, squarely in the crosshairs, potentially making it “the first to experience the might of the strategic weapons of the DPRK,” Pyongyang warned.

Trump’s comments reflect the seriousness with which his administration is taking intelligence estimates that the North now has up to 60 nuclear weapons, “and has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

From the WSJ: “A senior Trump administration official said Tuesday that Washington shouldn’t assume it will be able to contain a North Korea with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles through traditional deterrence methods. ‘We are not going to allow North Korea to hold American cities hostage,’” the official said.

The New York Times puts the president’s harsh words into some historical perspective, finding little to compare it to in the modern era.

Go to the tapes. An interview Trump gave to the late Tim Russert in 1999 made the rounds on social media Tuesday night, where the then-real estate mogul told SitRep’s fellow South Buffalonian that he would launch a preemptive first strike to take out North Korea’s nukes.

Where’s Rex? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been in Southeast Asia all week working to shore up support to hold the line against North Korea, while trying to offer Pyongyang a path forward to negotiations. But Trump may have cannonballed the effort, Michael Fuchs, former State Department deputy envoy on east Asian and Pacific affairs tells FP’s Robbie Gramer.

“This stunt will have deeply eroded the trust allies have in the U.S. to responsibly handle this threat,” Fuchs said. At the top of that list is South Korea and Japan. “And Tillerson’s attempt at getting others on board with the U.S. just had the rug pulled out from under it, just like Trump did with Tillerson over the Qatar crisis,” he added.

Fly by. On Monday, two U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers flew over Japan and South Korea along with aircraft from those nations to conduct training, the U.S. Air Force announced.

Afghan plan. While we await the new plan for the war in Afghanistan that was supposedly wrapped up in May, then was due by July, then mid-July (and now silence on its completion), former Blackwater chief Erik Prince has forced himself into the middle of the process.

Prince took to CNN this week — a surefire way to brief the president — to pitch his idea of sending thousands of private military contractors to Afghanistan to train and advise local forces, while pulling U.S. troops out. Word is, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, SecDef Jim Mattis and most the the rest of the president’s cabinet rejects the idea. But one person who appears open to it is Steve Bannon, Trump’s top advisor.

The Daily Beast says process is what helped the Prince idea gain a foothold. McMaster insisted that before he took a plan to the president, the various national-security departments had to back a single strategy for the war. Problem was, not everyone could agree, causing the process to grind on for weeks. “McMaster’s approach left open a ‘vacuum to be filled with absurd, throw-whatever-at-the-wall stuff like this,’” one senior White House official told the site.

Administration to Diplomats: Be Coy on Climate Change. Rex Tillerson has instructed U.S. diplomats to sidestep talking about climate change, according to a diplomatic cable obtained by Reuters. The cable gives instructions and specific talking points to diplomats if their foreign counterparts press on the subject, such as reconsidering engaging in the Paris climate pact. The talking points are, perhaps unsurprisingly, non-answers steeped in diplomatic gobbledygook, such as “We are considering a number of factors. I do not have any information to share on the nature or timing of the process.”

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary and @arawnsley.

Subtweets. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey offers some thoughts on North Korea, tweeting, “Not just our problem. Security priority 3 or 4. We control the clock. Need steady, calculated, creative, inclusive leadership.”

Reshuffle. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has shaken up Korea’s military, replacing seven four star generals with new picks. Moon named Air Force Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, challenging the South Korean army’s traditional predominance in the country’s military institutions.

Computer love. Cybersecurity researchers have noticed an uptick in a malware campaign targeting North Koreans and North Korea-related entities following Pyongyang’s recent missile tests. It’s unclear who’s behind the hacking, which uses malware-laden documents in emails sent to North Korean embassies and United Nations offices that work with the North.

Next stop is Vietnam. An American aircraft carrier will visit Vietnam in 2018, marking the first time a U.S. flattop has docked in the country since the end of the Vietnam War over 40 years ago. The announcement came following a meeting between SecDef Jim Mattis and Vietnamese Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan. The two countries have grown closer in recent years as Hanoi has grown warier of Chinese territorial claims on islands and waters Vietnam claims as its own.

Today in truthers. Sebastian Gorka, a White House aide of indeterminate portfolio, went on cable news on Tuesday to suggest without evidence that a bombing attack on a Minnesota mosque was a “fake hate crime.” Gorka was attempting to explain why the Trump White House has yet to issue a statement about the incident, but Buzzfeed reports that Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has already called the attack a “a criminal act of terrorism.”

Trolling. Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia on the seventh anniversary of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, which Georgia’s foreign ministry called a “legitimization of forceful change of borders of the sovereign state through military aggression, ethnic cleansing and occupation.”

Rumble in the Himalayas. China and India are feuding over the disputed border between India’s ally Bhutan and the People’s Republic but attempts to resolve the dispute through diplomacy have come to a standstill. Indian diplomats tells Reuters that they’ve reached out to their Chinese counterparts to propose a mutual pullback of troops to no avail. The crisis started after Indian troops deployed to Bhutan to prevent Chinese road construction in contested territory.


Photo Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images