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Security Brief: Trump Has Second Thoughts on DPRK; Pompeo’s ‘Plan B’ for Iran

Trump is quizzing his South Korean counterpart on North Korean intentions.

President Donald Trump walks with three Americans released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Donald Trump walks with three Americans released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Donald Trump walks with three Americans released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By Elias Groll, with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

By Elias Groll, with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Big week for North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrives in Washington for talks Tuesday ahead of the planned summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

After impulsively accepting a North Korean offer for a summit meeting, Trump is now having second thoughts, according to media reports over the weekend. Trump has in recent days been quizzing aides on the wisdom of meeting with Kim, according to the New York Times.

On Saturday, Trump called Moon to get his take on a shift in North Korean rhetoric and threats that it will pull out of the summit, according to the Washington Post. According to the Post, “Bolton has been telling colleagues that he doesn’t trust that the summit will go well.”

After weeks of euphoric — and completely unrealistic — headlines about the prospects of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, reality is beginning to set in. Late last week, North Korean officials threatened to pull out of the summit planned for June 12 in Singapore after picking up on comments by National Security Adviser John Bolton that the U.S. favors a “Libyan model” for North Korea — one that left Muammar al-Qaddafi dead in a ditch.

Trump attempted a bit of damage control on Thursday, but ended up reiterating a threat of American military action against North Korea.

“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea,” Trump said. “If you look at that model with Qaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him.”

“That model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely,” Trump added.

Welcome to this Monday’s edition of Security Brief, in which we pour one out for Ukraine’s patriotic combat dolphins. As always, send your tips, comments, and questions to

Plan B. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will present the Trump administration’s plan for isolating Iran in the wake of exiting the Iran nuclear deal on Monday morning. In a 9 a.m. speech at the Heritage Foundation — his first major policy address as Secretary of State — Pompeo will lay out what is being described as the “plan b” for countering Iran.

Mixing trade and foreign policy. U.S. and Chinese officials met last week in an attempt to reach a trade deal and avert a trade war. Tariff reductions may be in sight. But former U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus warned that Trump may give in on trade in order to get China’s help with North Korea. Trump has also suggested that the United States might relax newly imposed restrictions on Chinese telecoms giant ZTE, which has violated sanctions on Iran.

ZTE ban in Congress. President Donald Trump may want to use ZTE as a bargaining chip with China, but Congress has other ideas. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said the defense authorization bill currently making its way through Congress is likely to keep language prohibiting government agencies from using ZTE products.

A case study in sanctions evasion. North Korean operatives stationed abroad play a key role in the isolated country’s complex schemes to evade sanctions, and new documents provide a revealing glimpse at how these operations are carried out, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Material from the laptops, phones, and tablet computer of Ri Jong Chol, a businessman in his 40s living in Malaysia, provides insight into the sanctions evasion he helped facilitate on behalf of Pyongyang. “He helped export hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of palm oil and soap to a military controlled trading company in Pyongyang under U.N. and U.S. sanctions. He arranged to procure 50,000 bottles of Italian wine, valued at $250,000, despite U.N. curbs on luxury goods bound for North Korea’s elite. And he is suspected of providing the getaway car for a high-profile killing,” the paper reports.

Not a step in the right direction. North Korea has once again demanded the return of a group of restaurant workers who defected to South Korea in 2016, the Associated Press reports. “The statement by North Korea’s Red Cross came a week after Seoul said it would look more closely into the circumstances surrounding the women’s arrival following a media report that suggested some of them might have been brought to the South against their will,” according to the AP.

An opening North Korea gambit from Clapper. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, one of the few American officials to have recently carried out talks with the North Korea, argues the United States should abandon its demands that the country give up its nuclear weapons as a precondition to talks.

We should meet their demand to sign a peace treaty, and establish a physical presence in Pyongyang, an office staffed by Americans who can interact with North Korean citizens,” Clapper writes in the New York Times. “We could model it on the ‘interests section’ we maintained in Havana for decades.”

Clapper’s proposal would be to provide a “road map” to pulling a large number of U.S. troops out of Korea, to be matched by reductions of North Korean troops along the DMZ. “If we can figure out a way to lead North Korea’s leaders to a place where they don’t feel so threatened, we could move away from the cusp of a cataclysmic war,” Clapper argues.

When Clapper almost died in North Korea. Clapper also recounts how in 1985, when he was chief of intelligence for United States forces in South Korea, he nearly lost his life flying in a helicopter over the DMZ into North Korea. “After some evasive maneuvering, our pilot returned us to South Korean airspace and then home. A few days later a nervous South Korean commander showed up to apologize for an M-60 machine gun round that had struck our main rotor. The commander explained that South Korean troops assumed any aircraft flying north was defecting. We’d taken fire from both the North and South, and the South Koreans were better shots.”

South Korea pausing defense purchases? Amid warming relations with North Korea, South Korea may be pausing major defense acquisitions, including a special forces version of the MH-47 Chinook helicopter and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, Defense News reports. The special forces version of the Chinook would be part of South Korea’s so-called “decapitation unit,” which in the event of a conflict could attempt to enter North Korea covertly and attack its senior leadership.   

RIP NATO? “Fifteen years ago, it was the Iraq War that divided Europe and the United States. Five years ago, it was the awkward revelation that the U.S. had been eavesdropping on the German chancellor’s cellphone. The two powers, pillars of the postwar world order, don’t always see eye-to-eye on policies and practices. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and his embrace of a protectionist approach to trade even with close allies have blown a hole in their trans-Atlantic alliance, a breach so big that it could jeopardize decades of stability and prosperity for the West and end up benefiting two other global powers: Russia and China,” FP’s Keith Johnson, Dan De Luce, and Emily Tamkin report.

Today’s surveillance. Human rights activists in Pakistan are being targeted by fake online and social media personas in an attempt to get them to download malicious software that tracks their communications, according to a new Amnesty International investigation. The report is the latest in a slew from human rights groups documenting how activists around the world are being targeted by sophisticated and increasingly available spyware that provides extraordinary abilities for governments to monitor their communications.  

The cyber adviser is dead. National Security Adviser John Bolton has eliminated the top cybersecurity advisory position at the White House, Politico reports. The surprising move comes as American officials continue to warn that cybersecurity threats remain a huge threat to the U.S. government.

Bolton’s pal. John Bolton relied on Matthew Freedman, a Washington lobbyist, to screen job applicants as he prepared to come into the administration as the president’s national security adviser, Politico reports. Freedman has received scrutiny for his part work as an influence broker and for his ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

$2.8 trillion! A new study attempts to quantify the amount of money spent on post-9/11 counterterrorism initiatives, and the figure is astounding: Between 2002 and 2017, the United States poured $2.8 trillion into counterterrorism funding, according to the Stimson Center. “That’s an average of $186.6 billion per year over 15 years. For comparison, that figure represents more than the overall 2017 defense expenditures of Russia, India and South Korea combined,” Defense News notes. “Terrorist actions by Muslim extremists or jihadis since the September 11, 2001 attacks have killed 100 people in the United States, or about six per year.”    

Mattis hates your phone. Secretary Jim Mattis would like the Pentagon to take operational security a bit more seriously and is expected to tighten the building’s policy for where cellphones will be allowed, CNN reports. While he had toyed with an outright ban, Mattis appears headed toward increasing the restrictions on the spaces in which the devices will be permitted.  

Mattis on Sadr. The big winner of Iraq’s parliamentary elections is the cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who fiercely opposed and violently resisted the American occupation of the country. But Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is responding cautiously to Sadr’s electoral triumph. “The Iraqi people had an election, it’s a democratic process at a time when many people doubted that Iraq could take charge of themselves,” Mattis said last week. “So we will wait and see the results – the final results of the election. And we stand with the Iraqi people’s decisions.”

In a fascinating reversal, Sadr, whose death squads once spread fear in Baghdad, has repositioned himself as a technocratic reformer opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq. While Sadr accepted Iranian arms and support during the American occupation, he now heads a reformist coalition with a surprising “Iraq first” platform. His block received the most votes in the recent election, but he now faces a difficult period of parliamentary jockeying as Iraq attempts to determine its political future in the aftermath of the Islamic State’s near defeat, the New York Times reports.

Baghdadi lives. Stripped of its territory and its caliphate in ruins, the Islamic State militant group is a shadow of its former self, but its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi appears to still be alive and involved in the group’s ideological and planning work. “U.S. counterterrorism officials are convinced that Baghdadi is alive and is helping direct long-term strategy for the dwindling numbers of Islamic State fighters defending the group’s remaining strongholds in eastern Syria,” the Washington Post reports. “The U.S. view is supported by intelligence intercepts and detainee interrogations, as well as writings and statements by operatives within the terrorist group’s network.”

Mueller in Vietnam. Before making a dream career as a federal prosecutor and later the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller was a young Marine Corps lieutenant serving in Vietnam. His service in the war has been largely untold until now. “This first in-depth account of his year at war is based on multiple interviews with Mueller about his time in combat—conducted before he became special counsel—as well as hundreds of pages of once-classified Marine combat records, official accounts of Marine engagements, and the first-ever interviews with eight Marines who served alongside Mueller in 1968 and 1969,” Garrett Graff writes for Wired. They provide the best new window we have into the mind of the man leading the Russia investigation.”

How MBS got rich. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman may be in the middle of a highly publicized crackdown on official corruption, but it turns out there’s a fascinating story behind the ruler-in-waiting’s own huge fortune. According to the Wall Street Journal, “how the prince amassed his wealth exemplifies ways that the autocratic kingdom, essentially a family business, continues to intermingle commercial ventures and Saudi government connections to a degree far from Western norms.”  

Schadenfreude. “A hacker has broken into the servers of Securus, a company that allows law enforcement to easily track nearly any phone across the country,” Motherboard reports. “The hacker has provided some of the stolen data to Motherboard, including usernames and poorly secured passwords for thousands of Securus’ law enforcement customers.”

Meet the Poseidon. Russian authorities continue to bluster about their cutting-edge new nuclear weapons and have released new details about an autonomous nuclear submarine that appears to be targeted at American naval bases. “As reported by Russian state-owned media agency TASS, Poseidon is designed to be armed with a ‘two megatonne warhead,’ primarily aimed at destroying hardened naval bases accessible from the sea,” journalist Kelsey Atherton writes. “To get to those targets, the Poseidon will travel at depths of over 3,000 feet below the surface and with a top speed of around 80 mph. In addition to potentially carrying a nuclear warhead, the Poseidon will run on a nuclear powerplant.”

Evanina goes hard on China. Bill Evanina, a top U.S. intelligence official, said in a Senate intelligence committee hearing last week that China’s whole-of-government approach and use of non-traditional collectors for espionage are a major threat to U.S. economic and national security. “The US must continually and aggressively respond to China’s systematic theft of US technology, trade secrets, proprietary data, research and development across wide swaths of the US economy,” said Evanina, who has been nominated to head the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

China has landed bombers in the South China Sea for the first time. Beijing has spent the last several years building up artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea and constructing airstrips and other military facilities on the tiny islands. Now it’s taken yet another step towards establishing military dominance in the region — test-landing several bombers on an unnamed island there, according to a PLA announcement last week, including its most advanced bomber the H-6K. The Pentagon criticized the move, saying it would raise tensions and destabilize the region.

Rare earth wars. A federal review of rare earth minerals is nearly complete, and it may provide a new point of tension with Beijing, Breaking Defense reports. “The review promises to be the most thorough look at the entirety of the manufacturing and production of defense materials ever attempted, involving several government agencies, surveys of large and small players in the supply chain, and a study of foreign materials used in the production of American weaponry,” Paul McLeary writes. “The effects of the study, coupled with a related executive order signed by Trump in December, could very well open a new front in the burgeoning trade war with China.”

Cloud wars. For years, Amazon has dominated the market for providing cloud computing services to the federal government, but now Microsoft is making inroads on the market. “Microsoft has secured a potentially lucrative agreement that makes the full suite of the tech giant’s cloud-computing platform available to 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, executives said recently, moving agencies’ computer systems onto Office 365 applications and adding certain cloud-based applications not previously available to them,” the Washington Post reports.

Not a great headline. Troops at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota can’t catch a break. Days after news broke that troops at the base, home to nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, lost a box of explosives, officials at the base revealed a machine gun has also gone missing, the Washington Post reports.  

Lasers for the Air Force. The Air Force wants to field an operational laser weapon — and field it fast. “The plans for the near-term demonstration of a “High Energy Laser (HEL) Flexible Prototype” programme are revealed in an 11 May notice to potential suppliers from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC),” Flight Global reports. “The notice outlines a plan to pay a supplier to deliver a HEL prototype and perform a system level ground verification test of an LWS within 12 months of contract award.”

Upgrades for the Apache. With a replacement for the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter unlikely until about 2030, the Army is eyeing upgrades for the Army’s gunship that could include laser weapons and and material upgrades, according to Flight Global.  

Long time coming. The U.S. Marine Corps finally took delivery of its first CH-53 Super Stallion, the service’s new, huge heavy lift helicopter, Flight Global reports.  

Human-machine teaming. The Army will test a Polaris robotic vehicle, the MRZR X, to explore whether it can function as a pack horse for gear, ammo, food and water. “The Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Brigade Combat Team at 10th Mountain Division will be the first teams in the Army to run training missions and testing with these robotic systems in the formations,” Army Times reports.  

Flying target. With Congress agitating to save the JSTARS battle management plane, Air Force officials are issuing stark warnings about the plane’s vulnerabilities. In a war with China or Russia, the plane would make for an easy and attractive target, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson argued last week.The plane would be shot down in the first day of conflict,” she said.

McGurk gets to stick around. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reversed an order to kill the State Department office coordinating efforts to defeat the Islamic State, the Associated Press reports. Pompeo’s order has given the office, led by veteran American official Brett McGurk, at least another six months.  

Spy trial. American prosecutors offered new details on a spy scandal that may have caused a catastrophic loss of CIA agents in China. “Chinese spies promised to take care of a former CIA officer for life if he handed over information on clandestine activities in their country, federal prosecutors say,” the Washington Post reports. “Defendant Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, pleaded not guilty Friday in federal court in Alexandria to charges of conspiracy to commit espionage and holding on to classified information after leaving the CIA.”

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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