The Cable

SitRep: Is North Korea Making Bio Weapons?

Russia sticking around Syria; How ISIS built its arsenal

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visiting the Chemical Material Institute. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visiting the Chemical Material Institute. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Biothreats. One of the known unknowns when it comes to North Korea is the size and nature of its chemical a bio weapons program. The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick unties the knots and finds that things might be worse than you thought.

Consider a future career in cybersecurity. North Korea is also building out its hacker army by skimming off its best math and science students and whisking them away to secretive schools like Moranbong University. Experts say the North began creating a talent pipeline as early as the 1990s, with former leader Kim Jong-il going all in on the techno-war craze with a prediction that “all wars in the future will be computer wars.”

Russia in Syria. Remember back to yesterday when Russian President Vladimir Putin said ISIS was defeated in Syria and he would begin pulling Russian troops out? Well, they are….except for the permanent air and naval bases Moscow has constructed in the country. Or as Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters Monday, “comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions.”

Secret numbers. However many Russian troops stick around in the years to come, their ranks will be augmented by what is thought to be hundreds, if not thousands, of private contractors.

Trans service. The Justice Department is appealing a decision by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that orders the military to begin allowing enlistments of transgender recruits on Jan. 1. The DOJ said they Pentagon is still reviewing the policy, and needs until February,  but needs a stay now.

“Without this relief, the military will be forced to implement a significant change to its standards for the composition of the armed forces before it decides how to resolve this issue,” the government’s motion for an emergency stay says.

But Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, points out that the Pentagon has been preparing to accept transgender recruits since then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter signed the order in 2016. “That is longer than the preparation the military had for repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he said. “The Pentagon’s extensive study and preparation already occurred.”

In response to the report, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the Trump administration is considering legal options to keep the ban in place.

How the Islamic State did it. The New York Times’ John Ismay, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and C.J. Chivers have dropped a fascinating story looking at how the Islamic State built its extensive and deadly arsenal of weapons, using its fighters’ years of experience, common household items, and some very deadly high explosives.

U.S. Navy not bringing back Perry-class ships. After months of back-and-forth debate over bringing back mothballed U.S. Navy frigates in order to help reach the goal of a 355-ship Navy, the service’s leadership has decided against it. The U.S. Naval Institute’s Sam LaGrone reports that the price tag would be too steep, and leaders would rather sink that money into modernizing existing ships.

For more on the debate roiling the navy community over how to build more ships, while upgrading the 279 it already has, check this recent FP story that took the temperature of the room.

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

Batten down the hatches. China looks like it’s hedging against the rhetoric towards North Korea coming out of the White House, building a series of refugee camps to house fleeing North Koreans just in case anything blows up on the Korean Peninsula. Chinese officials aren’t commenting on the camps but hints about them appeared in a document leaked on microblogging site Weibo, indicating that contractors were working on five camps in Changbai “because the situation on China-North Korea border has intensified lately.”

Defector. Charles Jenkins, the last U.S. military defector to North Korea, has died in the North, according to Japanese media. Jenkins defected to the North in 1965 one night after getting trashed and wandering across the border into North Korea.

Jailhouse confessions. A Russian hacker told a court in Yekaterinburg back in August that he was working with a hacking group commanded by Russia’s Federal Security Service when he hacked into the Democratic National Committee. The claims from Konstantin Kozlovsky, made while under arrest, could not be independently verified but Kozlovsky named Major Dmitry Dokuchayev, an FSB officer arrested in 2016 allegedly for working with the CIA, as his boss in the operation.

I just called to say I love you. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s covert operations arm, phoned up the leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas’s armed wing to tell them Iran is offering “complete support” to them in trying to stop the Trump administration’s designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Back into the fold. As its war against Syrian rebels winds down, Hezbollah is using the outrage over the U.S. shifting its diplomatic stance on Jerusalem as an opportunity to pivot back to its old familiar focus on Israel — a less divisive position in the Middle East than its support of the Assad regime.

Europe says non. The European Union won’t be following the U.S. lead in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the bloc is prepared to recognize the Jerusalem as the joint capital of Israel and a Palestinian state but only after the parties reach a final status agreement.

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

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