The Cable

Security Brief: Trump Admin Drives Hard Line on Korea; Details on Kim’s Offer

After a historic summit light on details, White House reiterates tough demands for North Korean denuclearization.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are in talks during the Inter-Korean Summit on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are in talks during the Inter-Korean Summit on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

By Elias Groll, with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Robbie Gramer

And now for the hard part. Last week’s historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea has set the stage for President Donald Trump to attempt to close a deal with Kim Jong Un. The North Korean leader said all the right things in a series of meetings in South Korea that provided a burst of good feelings but few specifics as to how the conflict on the peninsula would be resolved.

On the heels of a pledge by North and South Korea to seek the denuclearization — a term that still hasn’t been defined — of the peninsula and to forge a peace deal ending the Korean war, Trump administration officials are pushing a hard line against the North.

Asked whether North Korea would have to give up its nuclear weapons before it receives sanctions relief, National Security Advisor John Bolton said, “I think that’s right.”

“I think we’re looking at the Libya model,” Bolton told CBS, using an analogy that probably won’t be much appreciated in Pyongyang. Among the other issues on the agenda: ballistic missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and the abduction of foreign nationals, according to Bolton. “So, there’s a lot to talk about,” he said.

While analysts remain deeply skeptical that Kim will give up his nuclear weapons, administration officials continue to maintain that is the goal. Speaking with ABC, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the U.S. objective as the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea.  

This administration has its eyes wide open,” Pompeo said. “We’re going to require those steps that demonstrate that denuclearization is going to be achieved.”  

The North Korean offer. South Korean officials provided additional details on Sunday about their talks with Kim, with a spokesperson telling reporters that Kim would be willing to give up his nuclear arsenal in exchange for a pledge by the United States not to invade the North and end the Korean war.

“If we meet often and build trust with the United States, and if an end to the war and nonaggression are promised, why would we live in difficulty with nuclear weapons?” Kim was quoted as telling his counterpart from the South.

Kim also offered to invite foreign observers and journalists to watch the closure in May of North Korea’s nuclear test site.

While some reports have claimed the test site is no longer functional, Kim denied those reports outright. “Some say that we are terminating facilities that are not functioning, but you will see that we have two more tunnels that are bigger than the existing ones and that they are in good condition,” he was quoted by South Korean officials as saying.

Signaling from the Pentagon. If North and South Korea strike a lasting peace treaty, it may require the departure of American troops from the peninsula, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is indicating he’s open to the possibility. “Well, that’s part of the issues that we’ll be discussing in the negotiations with our allies first and, of course, with North Korea,” Mattis said on Friday. “We just have to go along with the process, have the negotiations, and not try to make preconditions or presumptions about how it’s going to go. We — the diplomats are going to have to go to work now.”

Good Monday morning and welcome to this edition of Security Brief, in which we bemoan the Mossad taking Kanye West’s advice and tweeting “I love you” to a sworn enemy. As always, send your tips, comments, and questions to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

The UAE’s drone war. When Saleh al-Samad, a senior Houthi political leader, was killed earlier this month in Yemen, the Saudis were quick to take credit. The Houthis, in the meantime, blamed the Americans. But sources and videos reviewed by Foreign Policy point to the United Arab Emirates, which is increasingly exerting its military power in the region. It appears that the UAE used a Chinese armed drone to kill Samad, who was widely regarded a conciliatory figure among the Houthis.

Bolton’s favorite Iranian opposition group. Long considered a fringe movement, the Mujahideen-e Khalq, better known as the MEK, finally has a friend in the White House, reports FP’s Rhys Dubin and Dan De Luce. John Bolton, President Trump’s latest national security advisor, has been sympathetic to the MEK (and a paid speaker at their events). Whether those connections will pay off into influence on policy is yet to be seen.

More Syria attacks? Syrian state television reported that missiles struck military facilities in the country’s north. It remains unclear who was behind the attacks, and unconfirmed reports indicate 26 pro-government fighters were killed. Both Israel and American and allied forces have carried out air strikes against regime targets in recent weeks.

Pompeo’s opening act. New Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a big debut with a whirlwind tour through the Middle East over the weekend, showing the world through a flurry of activity and press conferences he is no Rex Tillerson. On pit stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Jordan, Pompeo slammed the Iran nuclear deal, signaled to the Saudis that U.S. patience on the Gulf dispute was wearing thin, and touted unwavering support for Israel.

Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lavished praise on one another in a press conference on Sunday, where Pompeo also hailed Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem next month.

What wasn’t on his agenda? A meeting with Palestinians, even amid deadly protests on the border of Gaza and Israel that has sparked the worst crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations in years.

Pompeo returns to Washington on Monday after his final stop in Jordan, where State Department employees wait to see if he can keep his promise of bringing “swagger” back to Foggy Bottom after his predecessor’s troubled 14-month tenure.

Can Kim trust Trump? Ahead of a looming decision by President Donald Trump on whether to stay in the Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of State Pompeo is downplaying the importance of that move for negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. “I don’t think Kim Jong Un is staring at the Iran deal and saying, ‘Oh, goodness, if they get out of that deal, I won’t talk to the Americans anymore,’” Pompeo told reporters. “There are higher priorities, things that he is more concerned about than whether or not the Americans stay.”

At least someone is in agreement. With President Donald Trump apparently moving toward withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain agreed in a call over the weekend that the deal represents the best way to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb. In a call between French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the two leaders agreed to work to preserve the agreement, Reuters reports.

Pony up. Pompeo did his best to charm his NATO counterparts last week, but he pulled no punches on the Trump administration’s demand that America’s European allies step up their defense spending, Reuters reports. Pompeo called out Germany for failing to meet the 2 percent spending target. “That’s the expectation, not only for Germany but for everyone,” Pompeo said.

Germany’s defense minister pushes for expanded military budget. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has requested an additional $14.6 billion for the country’s military budget, saying the current budget of $45 billion is vastly inadequate for the military modernization Germany needs. Germany is currently still below the 2% GDP military budget that NATO asks of members.

Charm offensive. Fresh off losing a reliable ally in former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is trying to forge a close relationship with freshly minted National Security Advisor John Bolton, CNN reports. Pompeo hosted Bolton for breakfast at the Pentagon last week as part of a push to establish a closer relationship.  

Eye in the sky. Australia will deploy a P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to Northeast Asia as part of an effort to monitor North Korean sanctions compliance, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said over the weekend.

Take it or leave it. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman delivered a harsh message for Palestinian groups while in New York last month, according to Axios. “The bottom line of the crown prince’s criticism: Palestinian leadership needs to finally take the proposals it gets from the U.S. or stop complaining,” Barak Ravid reports.

Make it go boom. A cyberattack on a nuclear powerplant sits at the top of the list of security experts fears of how state-backed hackers might cause devastating destruction, and with large sums being invested to secure such facilities, attacks targeting the supply chain represents one of the most promising ways to penetrate their defenses, Motherboard reports.  

Navy gets a new drone. The first drone warship recently joined the U.S. naval fleet, CNBC reports. The Sea Hunter is a 140-ton, 132-foot long ship that was first developed by DARPA in a program launched in 2010. While its exact mission remains under wraps, the ship appears to provide the Navy with an adaptable, relatively inexpensive ship capable of scanning the ocean for adversary submarines and working in tandem with other vessels.

The hacking chronicles. When Qatar paid hundreds of millions of dollars — the exact amount remains unclear — to free a group of kidnapped royals last year they also set aside funds to pay a variety of intermediaries involved in the deals, according to “intercepted communications” that were obtained by the Washington Post. The messages appear to describe a $50 million payment set aside for Qassem Suleimani, the head of  Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Russians on the wire. NBC News has obtained recordings of Russian mercenaries discussing the consequences of an American military strike that killed somewhere between 200 and 300 private military contractors in a disastrous assault on an American military position in Syria. “We’ve had our butts kicked,” one Russian speaking fighter says in an intercept.

China’s stealth bomber. As part of its rapid modernization plans, China appears to be pursuing plans for a stealth bomber, Popular Science reports. “The future strategic bomber, tentatively identified by Chinese Internet commentators as H-20, is believed to be a flying wing bomber designed for range and stealth,” according to authors Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer. “It would be armed with bombs and, likely, systems like the 1,200-mile-range CJ-10 land attack cruise missiles.”

Russian missile sales? After Syria’s vaunted air defenses failed to defend against American-led strikes against the country’s chemical weapons infrastructure earlier this month, Russian officials indicated they may provide new weapons to the Assad regime. On Wednesday, Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy said Russia will supply its client state with “new missile defense systems soon.” Rudksoy did not specify the type, but recent reports indicate Moscow is considering supplying Damascus with the S-300 system.

Fresh nuke sniffers. The U.S. Air Force will convert three KC-135R tankers into WC-135 Constant Phoenix “nuclear sniffers,” which are equipped with sensors to detect nuclear tests, Defense News reports.  

Hypersonics. The Air Force is pushing hard to get two hypersonic weapons deployed to counter Russian and Chinese investments in the field. Speaking to lawmakers last week, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service is seeking a conventional strike weapon and an air-launched rapid response weapon, Flight Global reports. “The guidance is to go fast and to leverage the best technology available,” Wilson said.  

Nakasone confirmed. The Senate voted last week to confirm Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of Army Cyber Command, as the next chief of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.

Faster sub production. The U.S. Navy is stepping up the pace of submarine production, with plans to build two instead of three attack subs in some years, the AP reports. “The U.S. attack submarine fleet is expected to shrink by 20 percent over the next decade,” according to the AP. “There are 52 attack submarines today; by 2028, that number is expected to dip to 42. The Navy has said it needs a fleet of 66 attack submarines, but that isn’t expected to happen until 2048 under current plans.”

A warning about China. During his confirmation hearing last week to become the next head of Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson warned that “there is no guarantee that the United States would win a future conflict with China.” The East Asian giant has rapidly modernized and expanded the competitive space in areas from hypersonic technology to cyber warfare. “Through coercive diplomacy, predatory economic policies and rapid military expansion, China is undermining the rules-based international order,” Davidson said.

DF-26 deployed. The Chinese military deployed the intermediate range DF-26 rocket, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads, according to the AP.

U.S. sends bombers over the South China Sea. On the heels of recent Chinese naval drills in the disputed South China Sea and near Taiwan, the United States deployed two bombers from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam to fly over the large stretch of water.

A Chinese spy plane spent four hours in near South Korean airspace. Over the weekend, South Korea scrambled jets after a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft entered the country’s air defense identification zone, the third time that’s happened this year. Seoul lodged a formal complaint with the Chinese ambassador.

The most important obsolete carrier ever. China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier entered sea trials last week, and while it marked a huge milestone for the country’s navy, the ship is already obsolete by global standards. But that may be missing the point. “China’s carrier-centered navy is not designed so much to challenge U.S. maritime supremacy as to inherit it,” analyst Sam Roggeveen writes for FP. “China may be betting that the United States won’t need to be pushed out of Asia, at least not by a frontal challenge to its naval power. Rather, the United States will slowly withdraw of its own accord because the cost of maintaining that leadership is rising so dramatically.”

AI isn’t good for nuclear war. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence could destabilize nuclear deterrence, according to a new Rand Corp. report. Among several interesting findings of the report, AI-powered intelligence gathering and analysis technologies may n the short term, increase fears that an advanced nuclear power could detect its adversaries nuclear launch sites and mobile weapons, raising the attractiveness of a first strike.

AI made in China. An artificial intelligence system developed in China defeated a top-ranked Go player, replicating last year’s achievement by a Google-built machine intelligence, AlphaGo. The victories of AlphaGo reportedly sent shockwaves through the Chinese military establishment and spurred heavy investments in AI technology, and now China appears to be catching up to its American counterparts.

Another poisoning? A former BP employee is alleging that the company’s top executive, Bob Dudley, was poisoned by Russian authorities, spurring his evacuation from Russia, the Telegraph reports. “The whole idea was to oust Bob Dudley and about 150 Western managers,” said Ilya Zaslavskiy, a former employee of the joint venture TNK-BP who now runs research for the Free Russia Foundation think tank.

More bad news for the Apache. The U.S. Army will delay final operational testing for the latest generation of the Apache helicopter gunship, Defense News reports. The delays comes after the Pentagon halted deliveries of the chopper because of a faulty nut. Military officials claim the delay isn’t related.  

No F-35 for Erdogan. A new bill introduced in the Senate would ban Turkey from taking delivery of the F-35 fighter jet if it does not release the imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson. The measure is just the latest indication of the downward spiral of relations between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally which has pledged to buy 116 F-35As.

Compete on price. With President Donald Trump promoting the sale of American military gear abroad, the United States will decrease its surcharge on the material exports from 3.5 to 3.2 percent.

Meet the Eurodrone. A consortium of European aerospace companies introduced the first full-size model of the Eurodrone, a medium-altitude, twin-prop unmanned aircraft that will be available in both armed and reconnaissance versions.

Machine learning for EW. With modern radar systems rapidly switching frequencies to evade jamming, Northrop Grumman was awarded a $7.3 million contract to develop machine learning algorithms to help electronic warfare planes pin down and jam radar systems, Flight Global reports.  

Escalating against ISIS. Though President Donald Trump has vowed to get U.S. troops out of Syria, Defense Secretary Mattis told lawmakers last week that U.S. forces are increasing their operations against what remains of the Islamic State, the Washington Times reports. “We are not withdrawing” Mattis said. “You will see a re-energized effort against the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the days ahead.”

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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