The Cable

Security Brief: North Korea Diplomacy Kicks Into High Gear

The Trump administration appears to be trying to salvage a summit set for June 12.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting on May 26, 2018 in Panmunjom, North Korea. Photo by South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images
South Korean President Moon Jae-in walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting on May 26, 2018 in Panmunjom, North Korea. Photo by South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images

Dealmaker-in-chief. After abruptly cancelling a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump and his lieutenants are maneuvering this week to resuscitate the planned meeting.

Following White House claims that Pyongyang was snubbing them, North Korean diplomats were dispatched to Singapore and the United States on Monday, according to the Associated Press. Kim Yong Chol, a former intelligence chief who is frequently described as Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man, was spotted in a Beijing airport believed to be en route to New York on Monday.

President Trump confirmed in a tweet early Monday that Kim was headed to New York. “Solid response to my letter, thank you!” The letter in question — an odd, highly Trumpian document — was dictated in full by the president himself, an administration official told reporters last week.

Late Monday, a North Korean delegation was reported to have arrived in Singapore, which is set to host the Trump-Kim summit — if it happens.

On Sunday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his surprise meeting with Kim on Saturday had yielded a commitment from his counterpart to “completely denuclearize the Korean peninsula.”

But Moon’s remarks also hinted at the huge differences that remain between the United States and North Korea ahead of any summit meeting. North Korean demands of the denuclearization of the entire peninsula would likely require the withdrawal of American nuclear-capable forces from the region, a grand bargain that the Trump administration appears unlikely to accept.

The Trump administration continues to maintain Pyongyang must give up its nuclear weapons quickly and to eliminate its entire arsenal. Moon referred to this gap by saying, “Both sides should try to diffuse misunderstandings by meeting face-to-face.”

Nonetheless, the diplomatic activity has American officials optimistic. “We have got some, possibly, some good news on the Korea summit, where it may, if our diplomats can pull it off, may have it back on even,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters last week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of Security Brief. As always, please send your tips, questions, and comments to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Hold your fire. U.S. authorities had been prepared to sanction nearly three dozen entities tied to North Korea this week, but are holding off amid hopes that diplomatic efforts could revive a summit meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the United States, the Wall Street Journal reports. Trump administration officials told reporters last week that the United States was still short of fully implementing its so-called “max pressure” campaign and hinted that more sanctions were likely in the works.

Crossing the border. With President Trump claiming that a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could still be on, American officials crossed into the North on Sunday for preparatory talks. Called away from his position as ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, a former U.S. envoy to Seoul, led the delegation. “The talks are focused on what would be the substance of a potential summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un — the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program,” the Washington Post reports.

Abe summit. With South Korean President Moon Jae-in playing a mediating role between North Korea, Japanese officials are worried about being sidelined. On Monday, President Donald Trump agreed to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of any summit with North Korea.   

No peace in cyberspace. The thaw between North and South Korea doesn’t extend to cyberspace. “In the weeks since their agreement, the North ramped up its campaign of cyberattacks on South Korea, launching fresh assaults on financial companies and groups focused on North Korea, according to people familiar with the matter,” the Wall Street Journal reported last week. “The frequency of those attacks also increased this month, one of the people said.”

How did we get here? If you’re confused about how the U.S.-North Korea relationship went from Twitter threats to bromance to break-up so quickly, here’s a handy timeline to help you trace the events that led up to the historic U.S.-North Korea summit’s cancellation.  

The fall back. Should North Korea ever employ its nuclear arsenal, U.S. armed forces may try to destroy its missiles ahead of launch. According to the Daily Beast, “the Pentagon has embraced a controversial policy of destroying enemy nuclear missiles before they launch, an internal policy document from May 2017 shows.” Such a move may include “executing cyberattacks against missile control systems or components.”

An intriguing back-channel. Israel Hayom describes a Saudi media report of an diplomatic channel between Israel and Iran running through Jordan. With the Syrian military preparing operations in the Syrian Golan Heights near the Jordanian border, Israel, Syria, and Jordan have agreed that only Syria and Jordan’s army will operate on respective sides of their border. The agreement would prevent the deployment there of Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah.

“The report indicated that Iran used Jordan as a go-between to relay a message to Israel, saying it would not operate in southeastern Syria near the border with Jordan,” Israel Hayom reports. “According to the report, the understandings were ‎reached in a series of indirect meetings in Jordan, ‎where Iranian officials, including the envoy to ‎Jordan, met with top Jordanian officials, who in turn ‎met with senior Israeli security officials.‎”

Russian de-escalation. Haaretz reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin is mulling moves to ratchet down tensions between Israel and Iran. “Israeli political and military leaders believe Russia is willing to discuss a significant distancing of Iranian forces and allied Shiite militias from the Israel-Syria border, Israeli officials say,” Haaretz reports. “The change in Russia’s position has become clearer since Israel’s May 10 military clash with Iran in Syria and amid Moscow’s concerns that further Israeli moves would threaten the stability of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Another Israeli strike. Israeli forces struck a Syrian airfield Thursday, bombarding a site that was previously struck on May 10. The targets of the strike were munitions depots belonging to the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group, located on an air base south of the city of Homs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, which also said the strikes were most likely carried out by Israel,” the Times of Israel reports.

Drone proliferation. Israel’s armed forces said they discovered a drone laden with explosive believed to have flown into Israeli territory from Gaza, the Times of Israel reports. The IDF shelled an Islamic Jihad position in response, killing three.

Fighter jocks of tomorrow. The U.S. Air Force is on the hunt for a new generation of fighter pilots, and thinks it can find them in front of a computer screen. “The Air Force is working on an online video game that it hopes will allow it to find and recruit talented young people,” Air Force Times reports.

French spy scandal. French authorities revealed they have arrested two former intelligence officers on charges of treason, the Telegraph reports. “The agents are thought to have handed over secrets while still in service for France’s external DGSE intelligence agency,” according to the paper. Sources close to the investigation tell AFP the two men spied on behalf of China.

Liaison work. The Palestinian Authority’s intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, met with Mike Pompeo last month shortly before he sworn in as secretary of state and still ran the CIA. “Faraj is considered one of the people closest to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,” Haaretz reports. “His meeting with Pompeo is part of a close relationship between the two intelligence chiefs, which began last winter when Faraj helped arrange a visit for Pompeo in Ramallah. A Palestinian official told Haaretz that the U.S. and Israel are looking at the Palestinian issue from national security standpoints.”

Drought. Conditions of drought struck two thirds of Afghanistan, putting more than 2 million people at risk of lacking sufficient food, according to new U.N. figures. “Water points and fountains across the country have dried up, and the lack of rain and snow melt has caused rivers to run low or dry up completely,” VOA reports. “The lack of water has prompted farmers to delay planting crops and reduce their field sizes in an effort to minimize losses.”

Sanctions, espionage, and Iran. Before the sanctions relief provided by the Iran deal, the Iranian regime operated vast money-laundering and sanctions-evasions schemes that stretched across oceans and implicated wealthy businessmen, with U.S.-Iranian dual nationals sometimes caught in the middle. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal may herald a return to that era, Politico reports.

Rubio flexing on ZTE. After the U.S. implemented severe restrictions on China telecoms giant ZTE due to national security concerns as well as its flouting of Iran sanctions, Trump suggested that relief for the powerful Chinese company would be coming soon. But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio isn’t having it. Over the weekend, Rubio said that Congress would work to make it impossible for the president to overturn the restrictions, the Washington Post reports. “None of these companies should be operating in this country,” Rubio said. “I think most members of Congress have come to understand the threat China poses.”

No collusion! China edition! Trump’s suggested relief for ZTE hasn’t gone unnoticed. More than 60 Democratic representatives are calling for an ethics investigation into Trump’s ties to China. Trump’s defense of ZTE came a few days after a $500 million Chinese government-linked loan was approved for one of Trump’s businesses.

The Sarsour dossier. Israeli private intelligence firms just keep making news. Haaretz reveals in a new investigation that “a secretive Israeli firm collected intelligence on Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour and her family, acting on behalf of an American-Israeli organization established to combat the BDS movement.” The company, Israel Cyber Shield, put together the dossier for Act.IL, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, “which used it as the basis of a campaign to discourage U.S. colleges from allowing the pro-BDS activist to speak on campus.”

Speaking of which, meet Black Cube. A source familiar with the private intelligence firm Black Cube’s work related to Iran tells NBC that the company was hired shortly after President Donald Trump visited Israel to investigate aides to President Barack Obama. That work was done “for Trump” according to the unnamed source. Black Cube collected material on aides Colin Kahl and Ben Rhodes, two key foreign policy aides in the Obama administration.

Anti-refugee. The Trump administration, which has drastically cut back the number of refugees allowed to resettle to the United States, last week nominated Ronald Mortensen, an outspoken hardliner on immigration and refugees, to be the next assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

Aid groups are not impressed and they fear he will take up the senior position to dismantle refugee aid and resettlement programs. Mortensen’s “writings demonstrate an absence of empathy and compassion essential for a position of leadership on refugee issues,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International who held the assistant secretary post from 2009 to 2011.

China’s AI aces. Jeff Ding of Oxford has translated a fascinating network analysis of China’s so-called AI “aces.” The article maps the careers of China’s most prominent artificial intelligence researchers and executives and provides a picture of how talent moves through the Chinese AI market and its research focuses. The analysis reveals that large companies — principally, Microsoft, Google, Baidu, and Tencent — continue to dominate the Chinese AI landscape and that AI research in China remains focused on computer vision, natural language processing, and computer hardware.

Picking up the pace. The United States hopes to shave years off the amount of time it takes to sent out arms shipments to allied militaries, Defense One reports. New “pilot authorities” established by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act will allow certain weapons shipments to countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Romania to cut through red tape.

Major Russian missile test. Russia’s armed forces test fired four Borei-class intercontinental ballistic missiles from a submerged submarine in the White Sea last week, the Diplomat reports. Video of the test shows four missiles firing in less than 30 seconds.  

Botnet takedown. American authorities moved to dismantle a botnet thought to be tied to Russian hackers last week. “Court documents unsealed in Pittsburgh … indicate that the FBI has seized a key web domain communicating with a massive global botnet of hundreds of thousands of infected” routers and other devices, Hacker News reports. “The court documents said the hacking group behind the massive malware campaign is Fancy Bear, a Russian government-aligned hacking group also known as APT 28.”

Zuckerberg’s wonderland. Now that fake news has become a serious business and reputational risk for Facebook, the company’s executives are emphasizing how seriously they’re tackling the problem with three new initiatives.

“Facebook will soon issue a request for proposals from academics eager to study false news on the platform. Researchers who are accepted will get data and money; the public will get, ideally, elusive answers to how much false news actually exists and how much it matters,” Wired reports.

The company will also launch a highly prominent public education campaign to teach users “what false news is and how they can stop its spread.”

“The third announcement — and the one the company seems most excited about — is the release of a nearly 12-minute video called ‘Facing Facts,’ a title that suggests both the topic and the repentant tone,” Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson writes.

Whoops! FBI officials have repeatedly argued that they are facing a crisis in the form encrypted phone devices that may contain crucial evidence but cannot be accessed by law enforcement. But the FBI has hugely overestimated the number of such phones in the possession of law enforcement, claiming that the number was close to 7,800 when it is in fact likely to be between 1,000 and 2,000 devices, the Washington Post reports.

The statistic is a highly significant one as it has served as the primary motivation behind legislative initiatives designed to provide law enforcement so-called “extraordinary access” schemes to encrypted systems. Cryptographers and Silicon Valley firms argue that it is all but impossible to design a secure system with such access and that it will put major American technology firms — no one more so than Apple — at a competitive disadvantage if they have to design phones with American police requirements in mind.

Trisis goes global. The developers of a sophisticated cyberweapon linked to an attack on a Saudi petrochemical plant have expanded their operations to include targets in the United States, CyberScoop reports.

Tick-tock. Thomas Gibbons-Neff of the New York Times has pieced together the most complete to-date account of a February assault on U.S. forces in Syria by what are believed to be Russian mercenaries. The battle featured a huge show of force by American troops repelling the assault, delivering a mix of artillery, aerial, and small arms fire on the Russian force, which was repelled without inflicting any American casualties.  

F-35 combat debut. Israeli armed forces have carried out strikes using the F-35 fighter jet, in what appears to be the jet’s combat debut, according to the Jerusalem Post. “We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East. It has become part of our operational capabilities. We are the first to attack using the F-35 in the Middle East and have already attacked twice on different fronts,” Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin said last week. His presentation included a photograph of the jet flying over Beirut.  

Snubbed. U.S. military officials rescinded an invitation for China to participate in military exercises in the Pacific, the Wall Street Journal reports. The move comes in response to Chinese military upgrades on disputed islands in the South China Sea.  

MH17. International investigators said Russia was directly responsible for the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. The investigators said they had identified the unit — the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade in Kursk — responsible for shooting down the airliner.  

Reapers to Greece. The U.S. military deployed Reaper drones — the more technologically advanced successor to the Predator — to Greece in a first of its kind deployment, the Intercept reports. “The tilt toward the Hellenic Republic comes at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and Greece’s neighbor and rival Turkey following the 2016 coup attempt by members of the Turkish military,” the outlet notes.  

‘Be prepared for war.’ The Swedish government is distributing a 20-page pamphlet to all households in the country that advises its population what to do in the event of war or crisis. The pamphlet’s publication comes amid heightened tensions with Russia and renewed debate over whether the neutral country should join the NATO military alliance.  

Logistics test. The U.S. Army is testing its ability to rapidly deploy a large number of armored vehicles and other equipment to Europe with a huge deployment to eastern Europe. “All told, 3,300 troops of the 1st Armored Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, will bring 2,500 pieces of equipment across the Atlantic Ocean,” Defense News reports. “The formation will relieve the 2nd Armored Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, which will return to Fort Riley, Kansas.”

NDAA moves forward. House lawmakers last week approved a $717 billion authorization bill for the American military that aims to increase troop numbers, provide for equipment upgrades, and provide a pay rise. Next the Senate must pass its version of the National Defense Authorization Act before the two chambers’ versions are reconciled.

The low-yield nuke lives. Before the defense authorization bill sailed through the House, Democratic lawmakers attempted to limit the Trump administration’s plans to develop new low-yield nuclear warheads. The effort was voted down by the House.

Future war in NDAA. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the defense authorization bill would allocate a significant chunk of funding toward science and technology projects, Fifth Domain reports. The bill, which has been approved by the committee, “would sprinkle $600 million more than the Trump administration budget requests into science, technology and testing programs, to include hypersonics, space constellation technologies, rocket propulsion, directed energy and quantum information science,” the outlet reports.  

Cyber in NDAA. The annual defense bill approved by the House includes measures aimed at improving the Pentagon’s network security, CyberScoop reports. The bill “seeks closer collaboration between the departments of Defense and Homeland Security in defending against hackers, asks for quick notification of data breaches of military personnel, and continues to crack down on foreign-made telecom products that are deemed security threats,” according to the outlet.

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

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