The Cable

SitRep: North Korea Readying New Round of Launches, Intel Says

Iranian general spotted on front lines in Syria; U.S. sends more commandos to Somalia

A screen shows footage of the launch of a Hwasong-12 rocket in Pyongyang September 16. (Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
A screen shows footage of the launch of a Hwasong-12 rocket in Pyongyang September 16. (Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Here come more Pyongyang missiles. North Korea is likely preparing a new round of missile tests this year, South Korea’s spy agency said on Monday, leading to new concerns of a clash between the regime and a coalition of American, Japanese, and South Korean forces should a test accidently strike land.

The South Korean spy agency “is closely following the developments because there is a possibility that North Korea could fire an array of ballistic missiles this year under the name of a satellite launch and peaceful development of space, but in fact to ratchet up its threats against the United States,” South Korean lawmakers told reporters after a closed-door briefing with intel officials.

Trump and nukes. More tests — including a possible nuclear test — brings up the spectre of president Donald Trump ordering a strike on North Korean missile sites, or somehow stumbling into a nuclear confrontation.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of Strategic Command, told a panel at the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday that he and Trump have discussed such scenarios and that he would tell Trump he couldn’t carry out an illegal strike:

“If it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen,” Hyten said. “I’m going to say, ‘Mr President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works.”

And then we have this. 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, according to 38 North.

New space race. Chief of the U.S. Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, in Defense One: “I believe we will be fighting in space in the next 10 years…Space superiority is going to be central to who we are as a service.” That expansion may be difficult, given the Air Force trying to give pilots more money to stay, but they still aren’t sticking around, leading to a shortage of about 2,000 flyers.

He’s back! Iran’s covert operations chief Qasem Soleimani is back in the public eye and snapping selfies, this time showing up among fighters from the Iranian-backed Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia in the Syrian town of Abu Kamal by the Iraqi border. The visit by the Qods Force commander, subject to U.N. travel restrictions, comes as Iranian and Syrian forces capture more territory from the Islamic State in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzour province.  

Soleimani’s visit to the Iraqi border was punctuated by the death of another senior Iranian commander, Khairollah Samadi, while fighting the Islamic State near Abu Kamal. Samadi, a commander in the Qods Force, is one of roughly a thousand Iranians killed in combat in Syria, though casualties have tapered off as the insurgency against the Assad regime has waned.

Where in the world… Before he landed in a Manhattan courtroom, Reza Zarrab was one of Turkey’s most high-flying businessmen. Now he’s accused of masterminding a multibillion dollar gold-for-gas scheme to evade American sanctions on Iran. But with his trial about to begin, Zarrab’s whereabouts are unknown, FP’s Elias Groll reports, and it appears his high-powered legal team is trying to strike a deal with federal prosecutors. Observers are now wondering whether Washington is about to strike a deal with Ankara for Zarrab’s freedom.

Afghan Army recruiting way down. The Taliban has been pressuring the families of Afghan army soldiers, forcing the recruits to leave the force in order to save their loved ones back home, the NYT reports.

Who’s where when. Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan hosts an enhanced honor cordon at the Pentagon welcoming Afghanistan’s Acting Minister of National Defense Lt. Gen. Tariq Shah Bahrami.

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

Yet another collision. For the fifth time this year, a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific has been involved in a collision with a commercial vessel. The USS Benfold collided with a Japanese tug boat on Saturday, suffering only minor damage and no injuries. The incident, however, comes on the heels of two lethal collisions in June and April, which claimed the lives of 17 sailors in total.

Okinawa. A U.S. Marine driving a military vehicle in Okinawa killed a Japanese man in a car accident, raising the possibility of further tensions between the U.S. military base on the island and locals. Local media reports that the 21 year old Marine involved in the crash had a blood alcohol level tested three times the legal limit. The Navy’s 7th Fleet reacted swiftl, restricting all personnel on Okinawa to base and prohibited all service members stationed in Japan from consuming alcohol.

Home cooking. The alleged hit squad dispatched by North Korea to kill Kim Jong-un’s estranged brother brewed up the VX nerve agent used in the attack at a crude laboratory in a Kuala Lumpur condo. Testifying at the trial of two suspects charged with the the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Malaysian authorities said they found the VX lab in the condo of Ri Jong-chol, a North Korean man deported shortly after the attack.

Backchannel. Israel has publicly admitted what everyone has privately suspected: it’s been engaged in secret backchannel talks with Saudi Arabia. In a radio interview, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel has been talking to the Saudis and other Arab countries, keeping the discussions secret only because their counterparts were unenthusiastic about admitting to direct dialog with the Jewish state.

Slavery in Libya. Reporters from CNN managed to secretly record the horrifying spectacle of a slave auction in Libya, where human traffickers sold Nigerian immigrants as human chattel for as little as $800. Libyan human smugglers have increasingly transformed into slave traders as human trafficking from Libya to Europe has left smugglers in control of large numbers of would-be migrants and fewer opportunities to slip them out of the country.

Argentina. Over the weekend, an Argentine navy submarine went missing 268 miles off the country’s coast with 44 sailors on board. Recently discovered satellite signals from the submarine had raised hopes that rescuers could locate the vessel but search and rescue teams have thus far been unable to find it.  

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