The Cable

SitRep: Trump Open to Talk with Kim Jong Un; North Korea Intel Failure

"I always believe in talking,” Trump said, when asked whether he would take a call from Kim.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 7: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump returns to the White House following a weekend trip with Republican leadership and members of his cabinet at Camp David, on January 7, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 7: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump returns to the White House following a weekend trip with Republican leadership and members of his cabinet at Camp David, on January 7, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

The greatest talker of all time. Fresh off comparing the size of his “nuclear button” to that of Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump told reporters at Camp David on Saturday that he would be willing to speak with the North Korean leader by phone, a gambit that he claimed doesn’t include an offer to enter talks without preconditions.

“I always believe in talking,” Trump said, when asked whether he would take a call from Kim.

“Our stance, you know what it is. We’re very firm,” Trump added. “But I would be — absolutely, I would do that. No problem with that, at all.”

Trump’s comments come as Pyongyang appears to be trying to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in South Korea. Officials from the North and South are set to speak Tuesday, and early media reports indicate that Pyongyang is preparing to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Four years isn’t what it used to be. Meanwhile, the political fall-out from Washington’s failure to predict North Korea’s recent rapid advances in intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology hit the front page of the New York Times over the weekend. At the start of the Trump administration, David Sanger and William Broad report, the intelligence community informed policy-makers that North Korea was at least four years away from fielding a missile capable of striking an American city with a nuclear bomb — an estimate that with the benefit of hindsight appears naive. Some observers, however, smell an effort afoot to shift blame from policymakers and onto the intelligence community.

Iran deal, again. President Trump may hate the Iran nuclear deal, but he probably isn’t ready to totally pull the plug on an agreement, at least not this week, writes Susan Glasser at Politico. Trump has already refused to certify that Iran is in compliance with the pact, but there’s no indication he plans to reimpose sanctions. “By the end of this week, in fact, the president who called that agreement the ‘worst deal ever’ — and refused, despite the evidence, to certify Iranian compliance with it — is expected to once again keep the deal alive by waiving U.S. sanctions on the Iranian government that were suspended when the agreement was made,” Glasser writes.

Reviews and more reviews. The Pentagon later this month will release its National Defense Strategy, laying out the priorities for the Defense Department, Defense News reports. “There will be a classified one that is relatively thick; there will be a shorter one that will basically lay it out unclassified, and we’ll get those copies to you,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters Friday. The Pentagon review, slated for release on Jan. 19, will come a month after the White House rolled out its National Security Strategy. Also coming down the pike is a review of the Defense Department’s ballistic missile defense programs and the Nuclear Posture Review.

Good Monday morning and welcome to today’s edition of Situation Report! We are now publishing weekly, and FP staff writer Elias Groll is your new host. Send any tips, feedback, and jeers to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Meanwhile in cyberspace. The computer security community is scrambling to make sense of a series of major new vulnerabilities identified in the basic design of computers. The vulnerability stems from chip designers’ frantic search for additional processing speed over the last 20 years. To boost performance, most processors will carry out parallel calculations of actions a user hasn’t yet performed by “predicting” what a user might do — and then discarding that information if the user doesn’t go down that processing path. But computer scientists have figured out how to steal data from that process — potentially exposing sensitive user data, passwords, and other prime targets for malicious hackers. Bruce Schneier, the noted computer scientist, sums up the problem this way: “The security of pretty much every computer on the planet has just gotten a lot worse, and the only real solution — which of course is not a solution — is to throw them all away and buy new ones.”

Mystery launch. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a classified government satellite into low-earth orbit Sunday night. The launch, code-named Zuma, is believed to be linked to the National Reconnaissance Agency. “SpaceX cut off its broadcast of the mysterious Zuma mission a few minutes into the flight to protect its secrecy,” USA Today reports.

Alone in Turtle Bay. American U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley started her diplomatic career as an avowed champion of Palestinian refugees, pledging that the United States would ensure that aid would keep flowing to provide schooling for some half a million Palestinian children. Now, she’s an isolated voice within the Trump administration calling for that aid to be cut unless they participate in U.S.-mediated peace talks, FP’s Colum Lynch reports.

Helped wanted at the NSA. Following months of speculation that he was on his way out the head of the National Security Agency, news leaked late last week that Adm. Mike Rogers will retire this spring. Cipher Brief reports that the likely successor, to be announced this month by President Donald Trump, is Lt. General Paul Nakasone, who is currently the head of U.S. Army Cyber Command.

Just don’t call it a reset. American and Russian officials are beginning 2018 with a flurry of meetings, the latest attempt to thaw relations between Moscow and Washington, BuzzFeed reports. The meetings set for January and February come as part of regular diplomatic work, which had been suspended by the United States, and will include a tete-a-tete between Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the NATO commander, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, head of Russia’s general staff. Kurt Volker, the Trump administration’s Ukraine envoy, will meet with Vladislav Surkov, a key Putin aide. The State Department’s number three official, Tom Shannon, will meet Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister.

Cryptocurrency for Telegram. The encrypted messaging application Telegram plans to carry out an initial coin offering for a cryptocurrency tied to its widely popular chat tool, TechCrunch reports. Such a cryptocurrency offers intriguing possibilities for Telegram: It would allow the service to carry out e-commerce within the application and bypass traditional banks. Telegram gained notoriety in recent years as the Islamic State’s favorite distribution channel for propaganda, and the terror group would likely welcome a way to stay out of the traditional banking system.

A sonic nothing burger. Sen. Jeff Flake says there is no evidence to backup claims that Cuba targeted American diplomats with some sort exotic weapon, the AP reports.  Despite reports that two dozen American diplomats fell ill while in Cuba, no solid evidence appears to have been uncovered backing up theories their symptoms were caused by “sonic weapons” or any other form of advanced technology. “The Cubans told Flake the FBI has told them that, after four trips to Cuba, its agents have found no evidence that mysterious illnesses suffered by U.S. diplomats were the result of attacks,” the AP reports. Flake, a Republican from Arizona, has been a vocal advocate for improving relations with Cuba.

It’s Mueller time! Special Counsel Robert Mueller wants to carry out additional interviews with at least one participant in an infamous Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and other campaign advisers and a Kremlin-connected lawyer and a Russian-American lobbyist, the Los Angeles Times reports. The paper also reveals that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, spoke with Ivanka Trump in the elevator as they were leaving the building (it likely would have been a brief conversation for Veselnitskaya, who doesn’t speak English). Citing defense lawyers involved in the case, the Times reports that the inquiries may be part of an obstruction of justice probe targeting President Donald Trump.

The interview of the century. President Trump’s defense lawyers have begun discussing possible formats for an interview between the president and Mueller, NBC reports. The talks are described as “preliminary and ongoing” but are being carried out with the expectation that the Mueller probe will seek a sit-down with Trump.

Drone war in Syria. Opposition fighters in Syria attacked an airbase base over the weekend using primitive drones, according to the Russian news website Lenta.  Russian forces were reportedly able to thwart the attack on the Hmeimim base in Syria. The drones, which were shot down, were made of wood and had homemade mines taped to them.

What’s a major non-NATO ally anyhow? President Donald Trump’s threat to cut off all aid to to Islamabad could include revoking Pakistan’s status as a Major Non-NATO Ally, White House officials told the New York Times. But both U.S. and Pakistani sources tell Foreign Policy that this status does not provide any substantive financial benefits, though widrawing it would be seen an insult.  The obscure provision dates back to the Foreign Assistance Act 1961, and confers some specific, and not necessarily grand, benefits to those with the designation. For Pakistan, the designation gives them a few benefits, the most relevant of which would be priority status for receiving “excess defense articles” from the U.S. military. But according to the most recent data available from the Pentagon, Pakistan hasn’t received any excess defense articles since 2016, when it received 10 armored vehicles from the Defense Department.

At least it’s not another Navy destroyer. An oil tanker collided with a freight ship off China’s east coast on Saturday, setting off a search for survivors. The collision set the oil tanker ablaze and comes on the heels of a series of collisions in the heavily trafficked sea lanes off China’s coast.

Foiled terror in Jordan. Authorities in Jordan said on Monday that they had rolled up a 17-member Islamic State cell in November that was planning to carry out attacks on a range of targets, Reuters reports.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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