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SitRep: North Korea Says It’s Nuke Ready; Another Afghan Surge; UAE, Turkish Leaders Come to White House

SitRep: North Korea Says It’s Nuke Ready; Another Afghan Surge; UAE, Turkish Leaders Come to White House

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Norf Norf. North Korea announced on Monday that its successful missile test over the weekend proves that it has developed the capability to carry a “large scale heavy nuclear warhead.”

The ballistic missile — dubbed the Hwasong-12 — was fired on Sunday and flew about 490 miles and reached an altitude of 1,300 miles before plunging into the Sea of Japan between the coastlines of Japan and Russia. The launch adds to tensions in the region as the Trump administration seeks to prevent Pyongyang from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. The test also presents an early challenge to South Korea’s new president, who was elected this month after vowing to return to conciliatory policies toward Pyongyang.

The test may represent “a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile,” said John Schilling, an engineer and analyst with 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins, adding that the launch “could be a substantial advance to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.” FP’s Paul McLeary has more on the test, and early international fallout.

Technical progress. The ten ballistic missile launches this year along show that the regime of Kim Jong Un is making real and steady progress with the country’s missile program. The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the literal nuts and bolts of the operation: “In a factory about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital city, dozens of computer-controlled machines, similar to those used by Samsung Electronics Co. to make smartphones, churn out intricate parts that can be used in missiles and nuclear centrifuges, according to photographs released by state media.”

More: “Weapons experts who study satellite images and photos released by North Korea say the newer machines have become ubiquitous in North Korean missile plants. The machines allow faster, more precise manufacturing of parts around the clock, reducing the need to skirt sanctions by importing similar parts. The United Nations bans any imports that could be used in weapons programs.”

Japan looking to boost missile defenses. In response to the growing threat, Japan is considering choosing the Aegis Ashore missile-defense system over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — currently deployed to South Korea — Japanese government officials told Reuters. The Aegis Ashore system is already in place in Romania, and will go online in Poland next year to scout for Iranian missile launches. Moscow is unhappy with the deployments so close to its border, and there’s a real possibility that Beijing would bristle over either of the Lockheed Martin-made system being deployed to Japan, as well. FP has more how the politics of the deployment of Aegis Ashore has been playing out in Europe.

Mini surge. President Donald Trump is preparing to become the third consecutive U.S. president to surge more troops into Afghanistan. Washington wants about 15,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford recently said, and he’s heading to Europe in the coming days to shore up support for the deployment of about 3,000 more troops to reach that mark.

But NATO allies have other concerns taking up their limited manpower and much smaller defense budgets, Jim Townsend, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy in the Obama administration told FP’s Paul McLeary. Particularly for the new allies in the Baltics and the southeastern Europe “who are looking at Russia breathing down their necks,” Townsend said, “they want NATO to be focused on the Russian threat.”

Big push. It’s going to be a busy couple days in D.C. as several heads of state come to the White House and Pentagon for high-level talks. First up is Monday’s visit by the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who will meet with president Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. On Tuesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives at the White House, while his defense minister heads to the Pentagon.

The meetings with Erdogan and his staff will likely be complicated, as Ankara is vehemently opposed to Washington’s plans to arm the Syrian Kurds currently marching on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa. President Trump heads to Saudi Arabia next week, and his administration is considering a massive new arms deal with the Kingdom.

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

Straight outta Sichuan. East Asia’s grudge match over a U.S. anti-missile system in South Korea is now taking the form of rap battles. The New York Times checks in with CD Rev, the Chinese hip hop group dropping sick rhymes like “What’s Thaad — terminal what? It ain’t gonna terminate violence” about their opposition to the U.S.-South Korean deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery. The group has gained a small following with a video on YouTube, helpfully promoted by the China Internet Information Center.

Syria. Syrian Democratic Forces cut a deal with around 70 Islamic State fighters last week, allowing them to flee from Tabqa if they put down their weapons and defused the improvised explosive devices they’d placed, according to the Wall Street Journal. U.S. forces weren’t a party to the deal and hunted down retreating fighters one they had left Tabqa. “I think SDF let them have safe passage out of Tabqa, but once they continued on the battlefield, I don’t know if that’s something we’re required to honor,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.

Land rush. As Islamic State in Syria is shrinking, Syrian and Iranian forces are rushing in to seize the territory left behind by Islamic State fighters before the U.S.-backed rebels doing the fighting can gain a foothold. Reuters reports that Syrian and Iranian troops have been massing at Sabaa Biyar near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders as Islamic State fighters flee the area following gains by the Southern Front faction of the Free Syrian Army, supported by the United States. The advance could bring Assad regime-aligned forces into close proximity with American special operations forces currently embedded with Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State near the border town of Tanf.

Off the shelf. When the Raspberry Pi Foundation started selling wallet-sized mini-computers for hobbyists and kids to tinker on, little could they have imagined that their popular $30 devices would turn up in weapons. But that appears to be the case as Popular Mechanics reports that a device resembling the Pi appeared inside a Ukrainian rocket launcher shown off at last month’s Bezpeka Security Trade Show. Raspberry Pi computers have become popular for letting users build their own pet projects like Minecraft servers and vintage video game emulators. But the Pi seen the Bezpeka looks as though it’s powering the homing device of a rocket designed to find targets by their acoustic signatures.

Ransom. Someone took one of the NSA’s leaked malware tools and turned it into a cybercrime pandemic. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of systems around the world were hit with WannaCry, which is built using an offensive tool built by the NSA and leaked by the anonymous group calling itself the Shadow Brokers. WannaCry is part of a class of malicious software known as ransomware, which locks up users’ files until they pay up with anonymous bitcoin cryptocurrency. Microsoft patched the vulnerability that the malware exploits months ago, but many organizations and individuals hadn’t applied the update from Redmond when WannaCry was released, leaving tens of thousands of systems from parking meters to hospital networks paralyzed.
Mutiny. Soldiers from Ivory Coast’s army have revolted after the government failed to honor a January promise to pay bonuses to rank and file troops. The government has been unable to deliver on its bonuses following a collapse in the price of cocoa, one of Ivory Coast’s main exports. The mutiny has taken hold in Abidjan and Bouake and government forces are already marching on Bouak.