The Cable

SitRep: New Drama Over Potential Talks With North Korea

New report out on U.S. weapons used by ISIS; Senator blasts Tillerson

North Korean leaders meet during the 8th Conference of Munitions Industry at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang on December 14. (AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leaders meet during the 8th Conference of Munitions Industry at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang on December 14. (AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

North Korea spurns talks. From FP’s Colum Lynch and Dan De Luce: Weeks before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call Tuesday for talks with Pyongyang, “North Korean officials were privately telling their international counterparts that they see little point in discussions with the United States and other key powers,” several current and former U.S. and U.N.-based officials said.

Pyongyang complained that the Americans walked back a pledge made earlier this fall to restart talks if it halted all nuclear and missile tests for sixty days, according to those sources. Instead of talks, North Korea says, it got slapped with a fresh round of U.S. sanctions. More here.

Meanwhile… The White House spent Wednesday walking back Tillerson’s comments to State Department staffers that he was willing to talk to the North Koreans without preconditions. And the U.N.’s envoy to North Korea “returned from that country deeply worried about the prospects for bringing an end to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program,” Bloomberg reports.

Iran concerns. United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley will use a speech Thursday to outline the destabilizing role Iran is playing in the Middle East, including sending missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen. United Nations officials are increasingly concerned about Iran’s role in that country’s grinding civil war, and don’t forget FP’s recent scoop that dropped more on what the Haley might present — and what she might not.

U.S. Defense officials are also looking for ways to possibly confront Iran in Syria, where 2,000 American troops remain on the ground.

U.S. weapons used by ISIS. A new report from Conflict Armament Research, a U.K.-based weapons tracking group, outlines in fascinating detail the industrial-scale weapons manufacturing capabilities the Islamic State boasted of in its prime. The group also picked up over 40,000 weapons on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, finding thousands of Chinese and Warsaw Pact-manufactured light and heavy arms and pieces of ammunition.

But what might be most notable are the American-supplied weapons found amid the ruins — the aftermath of secretive American efforts to provide small rebel groups with anti-tank rockets and other guided munitions. The transfer of the rockets, purchased from European countries, violated end-user agreements signed by the United States pledging not to transfer the weapons to third parties. In some cases, it took only a few weeks for the weapons to end up in the hands of Islamic State fighters after being delivered to allegedly friendly forces.  

Tillerson lambasted on Senate floor. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a blistering speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, taking aim squarely at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Since Tillerson took over, “there has been a slow, unexplained erosion of the Department,” Cardin said. “And along with it, the values that it promotes and the vital role it plays around the world.” Tillerson’s “redesign” of the department has “regrettably left the men and women who so capably and loyally serve it, behind,” Cardin said.

House GOP wants defense only bill. House GOP leaders are working on a government funding bill that covers a full year of defense spending at $640 billion — but only keeps the lights on at other federal agencies until Jan. 19.  The measure could face a House vote next week.

The future of Assad in Syria. The Trump administration is reportedly willing to accept the Bashar al-Assad as the leader of Syria until elections in 2021, the New Yorker’s Robin Wright reports. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain blasted the isea Wednesday, saying it would “only validate the de facto policy of two successive U.S. administrations that have failed to do anything meaningful to end the slaughter in Syria.” He added, “U.S. policy in Syria should be clear: Assad must go. We must be willing to back that policy with a strategy for achieving a post-Assad Syria where Syrians can live in peace and security, free from terror.”

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

Insultology. A small group of experts is studying North Korea’s unique brand of arcane and hyperbolic propaganda insults searching for subtle linguistic tells about when the Hermit Kingdom is actually serious about its belligerent rhetoric.

Putin presser. It’s that time of year again — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual marathon test of will and endurance disguised as a press conference. Among the many bits of news Putin has made so far: he called allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia “concocted by Trump’s opposition to make his work look illegitimate”; said he will run in Russia’s presidential elections as an independent and unconvincingly bemoaned the lack of a serious challenger in the campaign; and suggested that the U.S. military its taking it easy on Islamist militants in Syria in order to use them against the Assad regime.

Canada moves on arms sales to Ukraine. The U.S. may have a ban on lethal arms transfers to Ukraine but Canada is moving ahead with smalls arms exports, adding Ukraine to Canada’s arms sales whitelist — the Automatic Firearms Country Control List. Ukraine has sought anti-tank weapons from the United States but the Obama administration banned lethal arms sales to the country and the Trump administration so far has shown little inclination to change the policy.

Reactors in the desert. The Trump administration is pushing to allow Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium using American reactor technology as Riyadh looks to build at least 16 nuclear power plants over the next two decades. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has spearheaded the bid to get the Kingdom to buy American and have it sign a so-called 123 Agreement outlining conditions for the export of U.S. nuclear technology.

Somalia investigation. Africa Command has ordered an investigation into a joint raid carried out by U.S. special operations troops and Somali forces in August, which locals say killed civilians, including women and children. Africa Command exonerated itself in a November assessment, claiming that only militants had been killed in the assault but the Naval Criminal Investigative Service will now carry out a separate investigation.  

Rohingya casualties. The violent crackdown against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority killed 6,700 people in September, among them over 700 children younger than five years old, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres. The estimate stands in stark contrast to casualty figures released by the Myanmar government, which claims only 400 Rohingya had been killed in the fighting.  


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