The Cable

SitRep: Pentagon Officials Open To Talks With North Korea

U.S. taking eye off South China Sea, Navy searching for way to 355 ships, Pentagon experimenting with new missile defenses

Secretary of Defense James Mattis talks with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo in the Demilitarized Zone on October 27. (Jeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty Images)
Secretary of Defense James Mattis talks with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo in the Demilitarized Zone on October 27. (Jeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Talks with North Korea. The Trump administration’s nominee to be the Pentagon’s top Asia official said Thursday that the United States should be open to talks with North Korea.

Randall Schriver, nominee to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I do believe we need to get out of that binary trap of, we either go to war and have military conflict or treat North Korea as a recognized nuclear state…The only way you fall anywhere else on that spectrum is through diplomacy.”

On the same page. Defense Secretary James Mattis, speaking to reporters en route to Colorado to visit the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also left open the possibility for talks with North Korea.

“So long as they stop testing, stop developing, they don’t export their weapons, there would be opportunity for talks,” Mattis said.

But here’s the challenge. Meanwhile, “commercial satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard from November 5 indicates that North Korea is on an aggressive schedule to build and deploy its first operational ballistic missile submarine,” 38 North reports.

China. The highest-level Chinese envoy to North Korea in two years arrived in Pyongyang Friday “to try to improve relations that have soured over Beijing’s tightening of sanctions and expressions of support for U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls for more pressure on the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program.”

Don’t forget competition with China. With all eyes focused on North Korea, the Trump administration has allowed its policy on Chinese activities in the South China Sea to drift, reports FP’s Dan De Luce.

“Beijing’s under-the-radar advances in the South China Sea could be bad news for countries in the region,” De Luce writes. “The South China Sea has fallen victim to a combination of Trump’s narrow focus on North Korea and the administration’s chaotic and snail-paced policymaking process,” said Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as an advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.

About that. The U.S. Navy has been making the case that it can’t properly confront China with the 279 ships it currently has in its fleet, and has been pushing the idea of ramping up to 355 ships for almost a year. But despite releasing that 355 ship number in December 2016, the service hasn’t come up with a plan for how to get there, reports FP’s Paul McLeary, though plenty of options are being put on the table.

More ships, on Trump’s desk. The $700 billion Pentagon funding bill that the Senate sent to president Trump’s desk for approval on Thursday — which blows past stringent budget caps by $85 billion — includes a provision that would make it the official policy of the United States to achieve the Navy’s stated requirement for a 355-ship fleet.

U.S. missile defense. “Concerned that the missile defense system designed to protect American cities is insufficient by itself to deter a North Korean attack, the Trump administration is expanding its strategy to also try to stop Pyongyang’s missiles before they get far from Korean airspace,” the NYT reports.

“The new approach, hinted at in an emergency request to Congress last week for $4 billion to deal with North Korea, envisions the stepped-up use of cyberweapons to interfere with the North’s control systems before missiles are launched, as well as drones and fighter jets to shoot them down moments after liftoff. The missile defense network on the West Coast would be expanded for use if everything else fails.

Pentagon nominee stumbles. The Pentagon’s nominee to be  the next under secretary of defense for policy had a tough time Thursday after being asked by Senators if he would recuse himself from decisions regarding his old employer, Lockheed Martin, the world’s top weapons maker.

Asked by Senate Armed Services Committee member Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), how he would deal with foreign sales of equipment made by Lockheed, Rood tried to skirt providing a direct answer.

“Those issues that involve particular matters, something that involves the financial health of the company, I’m recused from,” he said. “If you’re describing a policy matter, such as how the United States should have a relationship with another country in an arms area, or cooperation between our air forces, I would be involved in that.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shot back that his unclear answers would cause “trouble” with his nomination. “One of my major concerns has been the big five (defense industry companies) and the rotating back and forth between government and business,” McCain said. “This is a straightforward example of why we need straight answers.

From Russia with…Russia on Thursday vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution to extend the mandate of United Nations chemical weapons inspectors in Syria, effectively ending international efforts to assign blame for the deadly use of toxic bombs in the country’s six-year-long civil war. FP’s Colum Lynch has more here.

Burn the treaty to save the treaty. The Pentagon is moving ahead with the development of a cruise missile that would violate the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. An anonymous military official tells the Wall Street Journal that the goal is to signal to Russia that they’ll “pay a military price for violation of this treaty,” and that the military is “posturing ourselves to live in a post-INF world…if that is the world the Russians want.”

Top Tillerson Aide on Russia. Brian Hook, one of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s closest aides, made a rare public appearance on Thursday to declare that the Trump administration isn’t “in the business” of using Ukraine, Syria, or NATO commitments as bargaining chips with Russia. “There is no grand bargain,” he told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is no quid pro quo and we will stand by that.”

Finally…Take some time and read this remarkable New York Times investigative story about the human toll of airstrikes in Iraq, which finds that there have been scores more civilian casualties than the U.S. military has reported.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Kaspersky splains. Kaspersky Labs has issued its belated response to a report in the Wall Street Journal claiming that the company tweaked its popular antivirus product to search customers’ computers for files with “top secret” markings on them. The company says its software collected National Security Agency malware from the computer of a U.S. customer, finding classified documents in a compressed archive. Kaspersky claims that the company deleted the classified documents, saving only the malware files.

Registration retaliation. Russia has named nine U.S. news outlets associated with Radio Free Liberty and Voice of America that will be forced to register as foreign agents under a new law following the U.S. Justice Department’s demands that the Kremlin-backed register as a foreign agent under U.S. law.

Hamas hit job. Hamas claims that operatives from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency were behind the shooting of the terrorist group’s top drone expert in Tunisia last year. The group said its investigation revealed that men traveling on Bosnian passports rented apartments near the home of the group’s drone developer, Mohammed Zawahri, surveilling him for months before shooting him dead in his car.

Strange bedfellows. Israeli Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Force Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot says Israel is “prepared to share information [with Saudi Arabia] if there is a need to do so” highlighting a continuing thaw in relations between the countries as both grow wary of Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Humanitarian crisis in Yemen. U.N. humanitarian organizations have signed a joint letter to Saudi Arabia, telling the kingdom that “untold thousands of innocent victims, among them many children, will die” in Yemen if the Saudi-led coalition does not allow more aid into the country.

Sudan comes close delisting. The U.S. may lift decades-old terrorism sanctions levied against Sudan if it continues to cooperated with the U.S. on counterterrorism, according to Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan. Sullivan said Sudan has made progress on counterterrorism issues but that Washington continues to have concerns about human rights in the country.

Sexual violence. A new report from Human Rights Watch documents what it calls “widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims” committed by the Myanmar security forces. The human rights group interviewed 29 women who say they were victims of rape and sexual assault in the wake of a crackdown against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

Who’s in charge of Zimbabwe? Is Robert Mugabe still the president of Zimbabwe or has he been dethroned? It’s hard to tell, especially after photo op with Mugabe, mediators from South Africa, and Zimbabwe’s top military officer, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga in the State House.

Careful with those thumbs. Someone from the Pentagon’s social media office is in deep trouble after retweeting a call for politicians including President Trump to resign, using the Defense Department’s flagship Twitter account. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Dana White later tweeted that the retweet had come from an “authorized operator” who had “erroneously retweeted” the comments.

 

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

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