Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Security Brief: North Korea, Iran Take Center Stage at UNGA

Catch up on everything you need to know about South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s big week, the U.S.-European clash on Iran, highlights from a massive gathering of top Air Force brass near Washington, and more.

U.S. President Donald Trump waits to address the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump waits to address the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump waits to address the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs are in New York this week for the start of the U.N.’s annual General Assembly gathering, and there is a lot to debate. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump will discuss North Korea, and the divide between the Trump administration and European leaders on Iran will be on full display. Meanwhile, the White House rolled a new cyber strategy that appears to make launching offensive weapons more likely, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos joins top brass at the annual Air Force Association conference near Washington, and more.

Programming note. Foreign Policy’s veteran U.N. correspondent, Colum Lynch, will be reporting from New York on the world’s biggest diplomatic gabfest with a pop-up U.N. Brief sent to your email inbox each morning from September 24 to September 28. Sign up here to get it, and read today’s edition here.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs are in New York this week for the start of the U.N.’s annual General Assembly gathering, and there is a lot to debate. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump will discuss North Korea, and the divide between the Trump administration and European leaders on Iran will be on full display. Meanwhile, the White House rolled a new cyber strategy that appears to make launching offensive weapons more likely, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos joins top brass at the annual Air Force Association conference near Washington, and more.

Programming note. Foreign Policy’s veteran U.N. correspondent, Colum Lynch, will be reporting from New York on the world’s biggest diplomatic gabfest with a pop-up U.N. Brief sent to your email inbox each morning from September 24 to September 28. Sign up here to get it, and read today’s edition here.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

North Korea. It’s another big week for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who travels to New York this week to brief President Donald Trump on his recently concluded three-day summit with the leader of North Korea. Trump and Moon will be speaking on the sidelines of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, where a year ago the American leader belittled his North Korean counterpart as “rocket-man” and set off a war of words nearly ended in armed conflict.

Today the state of play is very different on the Korean peninsula, where Moon has pressed the diplomatic initiative while talks between Washington and Pyongyang have languished. Moon brought a sizeable business delegation with him to Pyongyang and delivered a hopeful speech before North Korean cadres in which he offered his “unreserved applause to your leader Chairman Kim Jong Un.”

But Moon arrives in New York amid an intense fight between the United States and Russia over North Korea’s evasion of sanctions. Washington accuses Moscow of attempting to water down a report on energy shipments to the North — transactions that American officials allege are part of a pattern of violating U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, FP’s Colum Lynch reports.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that sanctions on North Korea won’t be lifted until “we’ve achieved that final denuclearization.”

With his nuclear technology consolidated, Kim is turning to economic reform, where Moon sees a diplomatic opening even if continued sanctions pose an obstacle at the moment. A South Korean official revealed that North Korea’s deputy prime minister Ri Ryong-nam even went so far as to admit that his country’s economy is in trouble and needs South Korean assistance.

The business leaders who went with Moon said they were glad to have seen North Korea up close but stayed mum on possible projects.

In a joint declaration, the leaders of North and South pledged to hold a ground-breaking summit on railways connecting the two countries, the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex, and the creation of a special economic zone. The North pledged to close some missile testing facilities.

The development fits the recent pattern of North Korean diplomatic moves: opening the door to economic investment while taking modest steps on security issues that provide a fig-leaf of progress.

The narrative. Kim Jong Un is now being described in the New York Times opinion pages in the same breath as other East Asian autocratic reformers Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping, and Park Chung-hee.

Iran gap. The opening of the U.N. General Assembly also marks the first such event since Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May, and will put the U.S.-European divide on global display, writes the Wall Street Journal. U.S. officials plan to use the forum to denounce Tehran and mobilize international support for sanctions; meanwhile, European leaders plan to resurrect French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan for a “JCPOA Plus.” Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are scheduled to give dueling addresses during the event.

The volatile situation in Syria adds a new layer of complexity to the upcoming meeting. Trump recently indicated a renewed commitment to the war-torn nation, demanding that Iran withdraw all its forces from Syria before the U.S. pulls its own troops out.

Ahead of the General Assembly, a bipartisan group of national security leaders, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, slammed Trump’s Iran strategy in a statement on Sunday.

“The Trump Administration’s Iran strategy is to assert maximum economic, political and military pressure to change Iran’s behavior and threaten, if not cause, collapse of the regime. But since it has not undertaken diplomatic engagement on any of its twelve demands on Iran, the Administration has left Iran the option of either capitulation or war,” the authors wrote.

Gloves off. The Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidelines governing the use of offensive cyber weapons, and National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters last week that offensive operations have been authorized, FP’s Elias Groll reports.

“Our hands are not tied as they were in the Obama administration,” Bolton said.

Bolton cast the initiative as part of an effort to deter American adversaries in cyberspace, and while the details are classified, the new policy appears to move authority for launching offensive weapons down the chain of command.

The move carries risks. Deterrence in cyberspace remains a fuzzy concept, while experts caution that cyber weapons can have effects far beyond their intent.

Sanctions kvetching. Beijing summoned the U.S. ambassador to complain about sanctions imposed last week on a Chinese defense firm for its role in importing advanced Russian fighter jets and anti-aircraft missile system. The purchase of Su-35 jets and the S-400 missile system violated an American prohibition on major transactions with Russian defense firms, American officials allege.

That provision was included in the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a sweeping, aggressive measure mostly targeting Russia, and last week was the first time the U.S. officials exercised the prohibition on defense purchases from Russia.

Washington is currently embroiled in several disputes with allies, including Turkey and Qatar, who have purchased Russian defense equipment — acquisitions that at least in theory should trigger American sanctions.

Air Force we need. Last week the Air Force Association hosted its annual air, space and cyber conference at National Harbor, MD. This year’s event was bigger than ever, drawing speakers like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – whose company is vying for an up to $10 million Pentagon’s cloud storage contract – SpaceX President Gywnne Shotwell, along with the top DOD and Air Force brass.

All the big news happened on the first day. On Monday morning Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced that in order to support a major war against another great power, like Russia or China, the service needs to grow to 386 combat squadrons – though whether that plan is financially viable is still in question. Foreign Policy had the scoop ahead of the announcement.

Hours later the news leaked that the Air Force believes the price tag for standing up Trump’s Space Force will be $13 billion over the next five years – an estimate Wilson called “conservative.” But it looks like the Air Force may be stretching the truth here – Washington budget expert Todd Harrison batted down the secretary’s comments on Thursday, calling that figure “the highest estimate I think you could possibly come up with.” Ultimately Congress will have the final say on Space Force, and they are skeptical, writes Defense News.

Here are the highlights from the exhibition:

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, on expanding the service:

“To face the world as it is, with a rapidly innovating adversary, the Air Force we need should have about 25 percent more operational squadrons in the 2025 to 2030 timeframe than the Air Force we have.”

Jeff Bezos on the successes of his rocket company, Blue Origin:

“One of Blue Origin’s missions is to make access to space more frequent, ready to go on a moment’s notice, lower cost – which requires reusability. All those things are going to be required, in my view, to move into a new era of U.S. Space dominance.”

Air Force Master Sgt. Derek Anderson, the U.S. senior enlisted leader for the mission to rescue a soccer team stuck in a Thai cave system:

“We are trained to set emotion aside. You have to laser-focus on whatever task you are given until it is completely finished… After that last group was pulled out, I think everybody was still in that focus mode, and it took us a while to kind of decompress and let the emotions back in.” (Read more about the dramatic rescue here)

Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, on the Space Force:

“There is no group thinking at the Pentagon. We’re really wrestling with the ‘how.’ If we drew a Venn diagram of what it is we want to accomplish, everything lays on top of each other. The how? We come at the Space Force from a lot of different directions.”

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, on whether SpaceX would launch weapons into space:

“I’ve never been asked that question… If it’s for the defense of this country, yes, I think we would.”

Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces, on China’s participation in Russia’s Vostok military exercise:

“This is the largest exercise in a number of years for the Russians [and] the fact that [the Chinese] are there, that’s an indicator … I don’t know that they are going to have a long-term strategic partnership but that’s a piece that I’m paying attention to. My sense is they are trying to send us a message of some sort.

Sailors at risk for assault. The findings of long-delayed Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Pentagon on military installations associated with sexual assault were finally released on Friday, and the results were not good for the Navy. The data shows female sailors are at the highest risk, compared to women serving in other services. The risk is highest on U.S. Navy ships, including on a majority of the nation’s aircraft carriers, ABC News reports.

This will play well. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided to back “continued U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen over the objections of staff members after being warned that a cutoff could jeopardize $2 billion in weapons sales to America’s Gulf allies,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Syria. A week after Syrian air defenses downed a Russian jet, Moscow is delivering new anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

Suppressed. Google executives are continuing to crack down on company employees in a bid to stop leaks about the company’s proposal to enter the Chinese search market. According to the Intercept, Google officials have demanded that employees who read a document critical of the project delete the memo from their computer. That memo raises concerns that Google’s search technology, if launched in China, could be used to facilitate repression.  

The prosaic billionaire. Russian billionaire Kosntantin Nikolaev, who is accused of funding the activities of a woman alleged to have deliberately infiltrated conservative American political groups on Moscow’s behalf, has a far closer relationship with Russian security services than previously understood. According to the New York Times, Nikolaev has backed several business ventures to produce military hardware and equipment that would plug gaps in Russian defense capabilities.  

They got everything. Despite intense scrutiny of its products, the Israeli spyware company NSO, which has been implicated in a range of human rights abuses, is continuing to market a powerful version of its software to snoop on mobile phones. An executive who viewed a demo by the company told Motherboard that the company’s product was able to infiltrate an iPhone he had supplied within a matter of minutes.

The GRU connection. The sleuths at Bellingcat uncovered additional evidence linking the two men alleged to have carried out the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit.

Mobile nuclear power. Engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working on a miniature nuclear reactor that could bring mobile power to remote American outposts. The reactor can fit inside a shipping container and can provide up to 1 megawatt of power, enough to supply about a brigade of troops. First conceived as a power source for space exploration, the mobile reactors could cut down on the need for fuel convoys to remote bases in places such as Afghanistan.  

Hacking Taiwan. Officials in Taiwan allege that China is testing hacking techniques on the country ahead of elections in November.  

Senate targeting. Google alerted several American senators and members of their staffs that their personal email accounts were targeted by foreign government hackers. It is unclear who was behind the attempted hacking, but the alerts are prompting concerns about the lack of security for the personal accounts of high-profile individuals.

Springing Assange. Ecuadorian government documents reveal an aborted attempt by President Lenin Moreno in 2017 to give Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a diplomatic post in Russia, Reuters reports. Assange has been holed up in an Ecuadorian embassy for the last six years to avoid arrest by the British government.

Tabloid fodder. Cody Wilson, the man at the center of a national debate on 3D gun printing, has been released from the Harris County jail on bail. He was brought back to the country over the weekend from Tapei and will face charges of sexual assault.

Here come the regulators. BuzzFeed obtained details of plans being drawn up by UK officials for the establishment of a new internet regulator that would not only make tech firms liable for content published on their platforms, but also have the power to sanction companies that fail to take down illegal material or hate speech within hours. Ministers are also reportedly looking at implementing age verifications for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Twitter: @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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