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Security Brief: North Korea Exploits Diplomatic Opening; Trump Administration Divided

North Korea appears to be stepping up clandestine fuel and missile production.

By , an assistant editor and staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2013-2019.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects Sindo county in a recently released, undated photo. STR/AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects Sindo county in a recently released, undated photo. STR/AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects Sindo county in a recently released, undated photo. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Good Monday morning and welcome to today’s edition of Security Brief, in which we revel in the immaculate technique of Benjamin Pavard’s goal against Argentina and the death of tiki-taka. Send your tips and questions to

Good Monday morning and welcome to today’s edition of Security Brief, in which we revel in the immaculate technique of Benjamin Pavard’s goal against Argentina and the death of tiki-taka. Send your tips and questions to

Not much progress. Despite pledges from President Donald Trump that North Korea would quickly begin the work of giving up its nuclear weapons arsenal, a flurry of news reports indicate that Pyongyang is backsliding on its promises and stepping up production of nuclear fuel and missiles.

According to a bombshell report by NBC, American intelligence analysts believe North Korea has increased the production of enriched uranium and is likely making moves to conceal its nuclear program, deceive Washington over the course of negotiations, and cling to its nuclear weapons.

“There’s no evidence that they are decreasing stockpiles, or that they have stopped their production,” a U.S. official told the network. “There is absolutely unequivocal evidence that they are trying to deceive the U.S.”

Meanwhile, other controversial North Korean military activity appears to be continuing.

Newly obtained satellite imagery indicates that North Korea is expanding a facility dedicated to the production of solid-fuel ballistic missiles, according to the Wall Street Journal. Solid-fuel missiles can quickly strike targets and require less lead time prior to a strike.

Additionally, a U.S. military intelligence assessment has found that North Korea continued “to produce support equipment and launchers for one of its newer ballistic missiles through the first half of 2018,” according to the Diplomat.

These reports come as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to visit Pyongyang, where he will lay out a timetable for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and ask the government there to declare its nuclear weapons facilities.

But Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton appear to be deeply at odds on the issue of when Pyongyang would dismantle its weapons, the New York Times reports. Bolton told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that North Korea would be expected to give up its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons within “a year,” a far more aggressive timeline than Pompeo had previously described.

Amid the divisions at the White House, North Korea is moving to quickly capitalize on the diplomatic opening. Meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un asked his Chinese counterpart to scupper the sanctions regime against his country. On Monday, a top North Korean economic official visited China for talks on closer ties.

That gambit should come as no surprise, with businesses salivating at the prospect of a more open North Korean economy. A new report from South Korean analysts argues that with a bit of imagination and a great deal of diplomatic luck North Korea could become a manufacturing and logistics hub for East Asia.

So much for human rights. South Korean human rights groups complain that Seoul is suppressing their work and allowing human rights concerns to be sidelined in the country’s talks with North Korea, the Wall Street Journal reports. While the Trump administration made human rights concerns a centerpiece of its attempts to isolate North Korea, the issue has been almost entirely ignored by Washington’s diplomatic opening toward Pyongyang.

Personnel moves. Anthony Ruggiero, a sanctions expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the hawkish Washington think tank, starts work today as the new North Korea director on the National Security Council.

Papers, please. A new Reuters investigation reveals that Iranian officials and businessmen acquired Comorian passports that may have played a role in sanctions busting schemes. In January, officials in the Comoros Islands cancelled a large batch of passports that included more than 100 Iranian individuals. “They included senior executives of companies working in shipping, oil and gas, and foreign currency and precious metals — all sectors that have been targeted by international sanctions on Iran,” according to Reuters.

…speaking of passports. SCL Group, the parent company of the embattled consultancy Cambridge Analytica, used its political work in the Caribbean to boost the global passport business, Fast Company reports. “In the Eastern Caribbean, where SCL quietly operated in at least six countries, some of its work had an indirect objective: Assisting a lucrative trade in passports,” the outlet reports. “Reporting and interviews with industry insiders show how a nexus of buyers, officials, citizenship agents, and consultants has helped enable criminals and ignited political wildfires that continue to rage even now.”

Spatial reasoning. Researchers at Google are using deep neural networks to allow a computer to sketch a scene from an angle it hasn’t previously seen, Ars Technica reports. The research breakthrough demonstrates that deep neural networks “have a remarkable capacity for reasoning about three-dimensional spaces,” Ars reports.  

McMaster’s next move. Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is headed to Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he will work on coming up with bipartisan national security ideas. McMaster told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to examine how to deter Russian behavior and counter Chinese influence.

Advising and assisting. American Special Forces troops operating in Africa “are playing a more direct role in military actions” against terrorist groups than the Pentagon has acknowledged, according to Politico. “For at least five years, Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos operating under a little-understood authority have planned and controlled certain missions, putting them in charge of their African partner forces,” the outlet reports.

Talking leaflets. U.S. Special Forces Command has developed a prototype of a leaflet featuring circuits that can play a short audio message, Defense One reports. The technology could allow U.S. forces to more effectively reach illiterate populations and improve psychological operations.  

The latest G7 gossip. Revelations about President Donald Trump’s performance at the recent G7 summit continue to trickle out, and now Axios reveals that the American leader told his counterparts that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA.”  

Underground warfare. The U.S. Army is spending half a billion dollars preparing its soldiers to fight underground in the vast tunnel complexes and infrastructure that exist below major cities, reports. Army leaders have emphasized recently that the next war is likely to be fought in a mega-city and argue that American forces need to be prepared to fight in subway systems and sewers.

The space war arms race. Wired goes deep on the possibility of war in space: “A Russo-Sino-American space war could very well end with a crippled global economy, inoperable infrastructure, and a planet shrouded by the orbiting fragments of pulverized satellites—which, by the way, could hinder us all on Earth until we figured out a way of cleaning them up. In the aftermath of such a conflict, it might be years before we could restore new constellations of satellites to orbit. Preparing for orbital war has fast become a priority of the US military, but the more urgent priority is figuring out how to prevent it.”

Seems like it went well. A group of American technology firms sat down with U.S. intelligence agencies in May to discuss issues of election interference, and immediately hit a wall: The U.S. government wouldn’t share intelligence on current threats, according to the New York Times.

Info ops in Mexico. Left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador cruised to victory in Sunday’s elections in Mexico, but not without a challenge from online bots. Researchers identified automated campaigns to attack López Obrador, and there is little indication that major social media companies are keeping up with malicious efforts to influence voter behavior, Reuters reports.

Spy hubs. The Intercept identified the buildings located in eight U.S. cities where the telecommunications giant AT&T appears to be helping the National Security Agency operate a wide-ranging program to collect a huge amount of communications data.

Another headache. The NSA announced it will delete a large batch of telephonic metadata that it was not authorized the receive.  “NSA is deleting the [call detail records] because several months ago NSA analysts noted technical irregularities in some data received from telecommunications service providers,” the agency said in a statement. “These irregularities also resulted in the production to NSA of some CDRs that NSA was not authorized to receive.”

Bans aren’t the solution. The top technology official at the National Nuclear Security Administration says banning companies thought to pose a security risk from the United States is unlikely to improve computer security, Nextgov reports.  “When we start pulling the onion back on all of the products and services that you have, you’re going to find a chip somewhere—let’s just be honest about it—from one of the nations we’re not happy about using,” Wayne Jones, NNSA’s chief information officer said during remarks at a conference.

Hell of a heist story. For years, police struggled to identify the men behind the Carbanak gang, a sophisticated group of hackers who targeted bank ATMs and used digital tools to force the machines to spit out huge quantities of cash. Now Bloomberg Businessweek profiles the operation to take the gang down and “the mechanics of a caper that’s become the stuff of legend in the digital underworld.”

Nothing to see here. The operator of a German nuclear power plants said one of its facilities was infected by computer viruses but that the infection posed no threat to its operation, Reuters reports.  

Don’t trust everything you read. The cybersecurity giant Mandiant is pushing back against claims in a new book that it hacked into the computers of Chinese spies whose work the firm documented in a seminal report, CyberScoop reports. The claim concerns Mandiant’s watershed 2013 report that documented the work of the PLA hacking outfit Unit 61398, and according to a new book by New York Times journalist David Sanger, the company hacked into the computers of some of the hackers it was tracking in order to determine their identity. Mandiant is denying that it engaged in the controversial tactic of “hacking back” and says Sanger misinterpreted material provided to him by the company.  

Helsinki, you are the winner. Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will meet in Helsinki, Finland, for a summit meeting on July 16. The highly anticipated meeting comes amid increasing tensions between Washington and its European allies, who are awaiting the summit with some trepidation.

Light attack experiment on hold. The Air Force has put a pause on its light attack experiment after a pilot died in a crash last month when an A-29 Super Tucano crashed in New Mexico, reports. The Air Force is testing the Super Tucano and AT-6 Wolverine as part of a new generation of inexpensive, light attack aircraft.

South Korea envoy. President Donald Trump finally has an ambassador to Seoul. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris as ambassador to South Korea. The post had been sitting vacant even as Trump pursued an unprecedented diplomatic opening toward North Korea.

Getting serious with AI. The Pentagon has stood up its new artificial intelligence hub, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which will bring together AI projects over $15 million dollars under one roof, Breaking Defense reports.

Speaking of AI. Facing an employee revolt over working on artificial intelligence projects for the Pentagon, Google says it won’t renew its flagship Defense Department contract, but that is unlikely to pose a major hurdle for the department’s embrace of the technology, FP’s Lara Seligman reports.  

Buy American. The Trump administration is sending a high-level delegation to the upcoming Farnborough Airshow as part of its effort to boost exports of military equipment, Reuters reports. The delegation will be led by trade adviser Peter Navarro.

Who will make the list? The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill Thursday calling on the White House to compile a publicly available list of advanced persistent threats that the federal government has identified, CyberScoop writes. The Cyber Deterrence and Response Act will provide common terminologies for discourse when federal agencies examine cyber-threats as well as new control for the executive branch to punish U.S. adversaries.

Japan’s multibillion-dollar purchase. Japan will announce its choice for an American-made advanced radar as an upgrade to its missile defense system, Reuters reports. The purchase may ease trade tensions as Trump imposes tariffs on major U.S. allies including Japan and bolster security as Japan becomes increasingly wary of China and North Korea.

Big business. British defense company BAE System pocketed a multi-billion contract with the Australian government, beating out its Italian and Spanish rivals. According to the BBC, the defense giant will build nine new warships in Australia using a local workforce. The ships are based on anti-submarine frigates that BAE is building for the British Royal Navy.

‘Military-grade’ protection. DHS Under Secretary Christopher Krebs said on Wednesday that 2017 was a “seminal year” for nation-state-backed cyberattacks perpetrated by countries like Russia, North Korea, Iran, and China. American companies are not capable of fending off well-financed foreign attacks on their own, so Krebs suggested that “military-grade level of investment” may level the playing field.

ZTE management shuffle. The board of China’s telecommunication company ZTE sees a major personnel reshuffle as the company tries to get the crippling, U.S.-imposed ban lifted. According to Reuters, management overhaul is one of the conditions that the U.S. Department of Commerce set in exchange for lifting the seven-year supplier ban. So far, however, the Department of Commerce has yet to strike a deal with ZTE given pushback from lawmakers.

California data privacy laws. California passed a bill last Thursday to give consumers more control over how their personal information is collected and managed, Reuters reports. Under the new law, large companies storing information on more than 50,000 people are required to allow users to view their data and request data deletion, among other regulations. Big corporations like Google oppose these new measures and claim that they are too burdensome.

AI in the Chinese health care system. Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent are experimenting with digital health services in face of rising pressure to provide affordable medical care, Reuters reports. For instance, AI technology can now guide ambulances in Hangzhou through traffic and help analyze CT and MRI scans.  

Triton to Australia.  Australia will purchase six Northrop Grumman-produced Triton drones for $5.1 billion, Reuters reports. The new aircraft will be remotely piloted along the maritime border. They could also be used for intelligence gathering and long-range operations.

B-21 milestone. The director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office said last week that the secret B-21 bomber program is progressing toward a breakthrough as it goes through a critical design review, Defense News reports. While production has yet to begin, the project is currently testing component parts and a smaller model of the bomber through wind tunnel experiments.

K-FX news.  South Korea revealed its designs for a KF-X fighter last Friday, 30 months after announcing its indigenous fighter development program, Defense News reports. After a preliminary review, the military said it would quickly move to the critical design review stage and hopefully finalize the blueprint for prototype production by September 2019.

Italy’s F-35. Italy’s new populist government appointee for defense minister Elisabetta Trenta said she would not reduce the country’s purchase of 90 F-35 fighter jets but would seek to trim Italy’s military presence in Afghanistan, Defense News reports. Trenta also met with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton when he visited Rome on Tuesday, reaffirming the two countries’ alliance.

Budget maneuvering. The House passed a $675-billion defense spending bill last Thursday, with provisions that ban the Pentagon from working with Huawei and ZTE and set the groundwork for two new aircraft carriers for the Navy. While the threats of ZTE and Huawei have widespread recognition, budget appropriators clashed with members of the Armed Services committee and Pentagon leaders on funding for procuring a submarine, Politico reports.

ELINT training. The first of its kind since the Cold War, the U.S. Army conducted an active electronic attack in Europe last month. The prioritization of electronic warfare is part of a larger initiative to speed up the Army’s pace for acquiring new technologies, according to C4ISRNET.

VA protest. A 58-year-old Air Force veteran set himself on fire near the Georgia State Capitol because he was “disgruntled” with the VA system, the Washington Post reports. John Michael Watts lit himself on fire with a vest strapped with flammable material and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. His specific grievance against the VA is unknown.

Elias Groll was an assistant editor and staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2013-2019.
Twitter: @eliasgroll

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