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: Trump, Kim Head to Vietnam; DOD’s Long Term Plans at the Border

U.S. leader seeks tangible progress on North Korean denuclearization at highly anticipated summit.

A man pauses by a banner showing U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands next to the words 'Welcome to Vietnam' hung opposite the Marriott Hotel where President Trump is expected to stay during the forthcoming DPRK-USA summit. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
A man pauses by a banner showing U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands next to the words 'Welcome to Vietnam' hung opposite the Marriott Hotel where President Trump is expected to stay during the forthcoming DPRK-USA summit. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
A man pauses by a banner showing U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands next to the words 'Welcome to Vietnam' hung opposite the Marriott Hotel where President Trump is expected to stay during the forthcoming DPRK-USA summit. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

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Summit week. President Donald Trump heads to Hanoi this week for a highly anticipated summit with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un. Trump will arrive in Vietnam under immense pressure to deliver the tangible results his diplomatic gambit has so far failed to deliver.

Trump administration officials have described modest goals ahead of the summit: agreeing to a shared definition of “denuclearization,” laying down a road map for future talks, and freezing nuclear weapons production. If anything, those modest goals illustrate just how far the Trump administration is from a breakthrough.

The distance between the Trump administration’s aspirations and reality is spelled out in a new U.N. report described to Foreign Policy.

A forthcoming confidential 350-page report by a panel of United Nations experts describes how “Syria has emerged as one of Pyongyang’s largest conduits for the sale of military equipment throughout the Middle East and Africa, as well as chemical weapons materials. Operating through a Syrian arms dealer, North Korea has supplied arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, as well as clients in Libya and Sudan, according to a diplomatic source who detailed the report’s findings for Foreign Policy,” Michael Hirsh, Colum Lynch, and Robbie Gramer report.

With the Trump administration steadfastly ignoring broader North Korean behavior in its pursuit of a signature diplomatic achievement, it remains divided on core issues. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that North Korea remains a nuclear threat, and got himself into an embarrassing exchange with CNN host Jake Tapper, who pointed out that Pompeo had contradicted his boss:

Tapper: Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?
Pompeo: Yes.
Tapper: But the president said he doesn’t.
Pompeo: That’s not what he said. I mean, I know precisely what he said —
Tapper: He tweeted, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

Trump spent much of Sunday on a tear on Twitter and issued his usual optimism on North Korea. “Chairman Kim realizes, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the World. Because of its location and people (and him), it has more potential for rapid growth than any other nation!” Trump wrote.

Pentagon chief visits border. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan made a surprise trip to the U.S. border with Mexico on Saturday, as the department weighs diverting billions of dollars for President Trump’s wall. During the visit, Shanahan indicated the U.S. military’s support to the border may be a long-term project, the Associated Press reports. The government needs a broader, more effective approach to border control, Shanahan said, suggesting the Pentagon might contribute with its expertise in surveillance and monitoring.

“How do we get out of treating the symptoms and get at the root of the issue,” Shanahan told reporters while flying back to Washington.

The visit came hours after the Pentagon announced it will send another 1,000 troops to the border, bringing the total number of U.S. military personnel there–both active-duty and Guard–to about 6,000 by the start of next month.  

Asia Pacific

The train subplot. Kim Jong Un is taking the scenic route to Vietnam. His train departed North Korea on Saturday, and he is expected to slowly roll through China en route to Hanoi. He will switch from train to car at the Vietnamese border, and will drive the remainder of the route to Hanoi.

The journey by train will give Kim a chance to take in the fruits of Chinese economic modernization through his window–his slow-moving train will be traveling at below 60 miles an hour. It also avoids the awkward optics of having Kim step out of a jet emblazoned with Chinese flags, as he did in Singapore last year, the New York Times writes.

Purge. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has purged opponents of his diplomatic gambit with the United States and South Korea, shoring up domestic support ahead of this week’s summit meeting, according to a new report. The purge has mostly targeted foreign currency reserves.

Trade wars. President Donald Trump said he would delay the imposition of additional tariffs on Chinese goods, saying that negotiators are making progress on a comprehensive deal.

Trump wrote on Twitter that his negotiators “made substantial progress in our trade talks with China on important structural issues including intellectual property protection, technology transfer, agriculture, services, currency, and many other issues.”

Remarkably, Trump raised the possibility on Friday that he may use the criminal case against a senior Huawei executive detained in Canada as a bargaining chip in his talks with Chinese officials.

“We’re going to be discussing all of that during the course of the next couple of weeks,” Trump said at the White House. “We’ll be talking to the U.S. attorneys. We’ll be talking to the attorney general. We’ll be making that decision. Right now, it’s not something we’ve discussed.”

Surprise! President Donald Trump and his top trade envoy, Robert Lighthizer, are feuding with one another just as U.S. and Chinese negotiators race to ink a deal to avert a worsening in trade tensions, Bloomberg reports.

“Trump’s disappointment with his trade czar has built in recent months, according to people close to the administration, fueled by the stock market’s precipitous drop in late 2018 as the trade war with China escalated,” according to Bloomberg. “For his part, Lighthizer, 71, who’s spent years arguing for a tougher trade stand against China, has been growing irritated with Trump’s interventions, according to people familiar with the administration’s internal deliberations.”

The disagreement between the two men spilled into public view on Friday when Trump chastised Lighthizer in front of reporters for his use of the term “memorandum of understanding” to describe a possible trade deal with China.

The detained. The American family of a man convicted in China on espionage charges has broken their silence, telling the New York Times that Kai Li, an American businessman born in China, has languished in Chinese detention for two and a half years. Li’s family denies that the exporter of aircraft parts was involved in espionage and believes that his detention is politically motivated and tied to rising tensions between the United States and China.  

Meanwhile in Australia. Australian officials maintain that China is the leading suspect for a breach of the country’s leading political parties, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Australian officials have only said publicly that a sophisticated state actor was behind the breach.

Five dead in Kashmir. Three rebels, a counterinsurgency police officer and an army soldier were killed Sunday during a gunbattle in Kashmir, officials said, as shops and businesses shut down to protest a sweeping and ongoing crackdown against activists seeking the end of Indian rule in the disputed region.

Middle East

U.S.-Taliban talks. The highest-level negotiations yet between American diplomats and the Taliban are expected to begin in Qatar’s capital on Monday, with the presence of the Afghan insurgents’ deputy leader raising hope of progress toward ending the long conflict that is taking lives in record numbers.

The talks in Doha, which will be the fourth time Taliban officials have met with American negotiators in recent months, are expected to focus on the details of two issues that both sides said they reached an agreement on in principle last month, the New York Times reports.

Deadliest year.  The talks come as a U.N. report released Sunday indicated that more civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year than in any of the previous nine years of the increasingly bloody conflict. The report blamed the spike in deaths on increased suicide bombings by the Islamic State group and stepped up aerial attacks by U.S.-led coalition forces.

Beltway battle over Syria. John Bolton, the U.S. national security advisor and longtime Iran hawk, has won a crucial victory with the partial reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports.

In an apparent softening of Trump’s abrupt announcement last December that the United States would pull out completely from Syria—a move that blindsided U.S. allies and prompted the resignation of his defense secretary, James Mattis—the administration now concedes that a small force of roughly 400 troops will remain in the country, both in northeast Syria and the al Tanf garrison near the border with Jordan.

Driven by allies. Allies who said they wouldn’t stay behind in Syria to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group without an American presence played a key role in the Trump administration decision to keep hundreds of U.S. troops based in Syria, WSJ reports.

Civilians slow progress. The continued presence of thousands of civilians, including families of Islamic State fighters, is slowing a push by U.S.-backed forces to oust the extremist group from the last patch of territory it holds in Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal.


The swamp. A bipartisan group of 58 former national security officials are challenging President Donald Trump’s claim that there is a national emergency at the U.S. border with Mexico. “Under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today that entitles the president to tap into funds appropriated for other purposes to build a wall at the southern border,” the signatories, which include Chuck Hagel, Madeleine Albright, and Leon Panetta, wrote in a statement to be released Monday.  

Need wall. The House of Representative may vote on Tuesday on a measure blocking President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, Defense News reports. That vote will force representatives to take a stand on Trump’s controversial move to dip into Defense Department funds to construct the border wall.

Turtle Bay. President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Kelly Knight Craft, is his candidate to be the next envoy to the United Nations, about a week after his first pick withdrew herself from consideration, FP’s Robbie Gramer reports.

Talker. A fresh New York Times deep-dive into Mike Pompeo’s tenure as Secretary of State considers whether the former Kansas congressman is a defender of the world order or merely a mouthpiece for President Donald Trump.

The investigations. The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said he will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia be made public. “We will obviously subpoena the report. We will bring Bob Mueller in to testify before Congress. We will take it to court if necessary,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, told ABC. “And in the end, I think the department understands they’re going to have to make this public.”

The frenzy. Amid reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will imminently deliver his report on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, observers of the Mueller probe were in a frenzy last week in anticipation of a highly anticipated sentencing memo in the trial of operative Paul Manafort. The memo turned out to be a dud, and can be seen as a symbol of the ultimate futility of trying to predict Mueller’s next move, Adam Davidson writes at the New Yorker.

We already have the report. Chad Day and Eric Tucker at the AP have a bit of fun with the Mueller report frenzy with a piece on the special counsel’s voluminous court filings, which amount to a report in plain view.

“Mueller has spoken loudly, if indirectly, in court — indictment by indictment, guilty plea by guilty plea. In doing so, he tracked an elaborate Russian operation that injected chaos into a U.S. presidential election and tried to help Trump win the White House. He followed a GOP campaign that embraced the Kremlin’s help and championed stolen material to hurt a political foe. And ultimately, he revealed layers of lies, deception, self-enrichment and hubris that followed,” Day and Tucker report. “Woven through thousands of court papers, the special counsel has made his public report.”

Spy story. Writer Zack Dorfman is back with another howling spy story, this time about how the CIA employed an American businessman to bait a Russian intelligence officer with access to the Reagan campaign.

U.S. Military

Wanted: Secretary of Defense. The search for a permanent replacement for former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis—a candidate who will satisfy both the president and the Senate—is not going well, writes FP’s Lara Seligman. In recent months, at least four potential candidates approached about the job have demurred, according to several current and former U.S. officials. The list includes Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Tom Cotton, former Sen. Jon Kyl, all Republicans, as well as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Conflict of interest. An unexpected twist in an ongoing legal battle over a $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract has thrust a former Defense Department official’s connections to frontrunner Inc. into the spotlight, Bloomberg writes. The latest development raises the odds that the department might have to restart the massive procurement process, after spending 18 months on it.

Space Force. The Washington Post profiles Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who has won the bureaucratic battle over who will oversee the nascent U.S. Space Force but now faces the uncomfortable task of implementing a plan she initially opposed.

Male-only draft? A federal judge in Texas has declared that an all-male military draft is unconstitutional, ruling that “the time has passed” for a debate on whether women belong in the military. The decision deals the biggest legal blow to the Selective Service System since the Supreme Court upheld the draft registration process in 1981. In Rostker v. Goldberg, the court ruled that a male-only draft was “fully justified” because women were ineligible for combat roles.

A-29 crash. The A-29 Super Tucano crash that killed a Navy aviator last summer at a New Mexico bombing range was caused when the pilot turned too sharply at a low airspeed after a weapon release and entered an uncontrollable dive. Air Force Times reports on the details of the tragic incident.

EW. The Navy is likely to test small electronic warfare drones in the fall that will be deployed from conventional planes, C4ISRNet reports.


Huawei in UK. After several British security officials offered a softer line on the security risks posed by Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the head of GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, cautioned in a speech about the need to understand China’s technology ambitions.

“Understand the global nature of supply chains and service provision irrespective of the flag of the supplier. Take a clear view on the implications of China’s technological acquisition strategy in the west. And help our governments decide which parts of this expansion can be embraced, which need risk management and which will always need a sovereign or allied solution,” Fleming said.

Mobile World Congress. Global telecom executives are in Barcelona this week for the annual Mobile World Congress, an annual affair that typically focuses on technological advancements but this year has been completely taken over by security concerns and a roiling policy debate over whether the exclude Chinese telecom giant Huawei from next-generation networks, Yahoo Finance reports.

The American. Russian President Vladimir Putin told investors in a closed-door meeting that sometimes the detention of individuals accused of economic crimes is necessary in the course of an investigation, defending the prosecution of the American investor Michael Calvey. The arrest of the veteran American fund manager has sent a chill through the Russian business community, but Putin reportedly said the scale of Calvey’s alleged fraud could not be ignored by authorities.

Brexit. UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that Britain’s Parliament will vote on her plan to leave the European Union on March 12, setting up another decisive vote for her country’s future in the union. The move delays a vote that had been set for this week, as May scrambles to secure support for her plan.

In Brussels. EU officials are considering informing their British counterparts that the UK could stay in the union until 2021 until the country works out a plan for leaving, Bloomberg reports.


Spectre. Researchers at Google found that software solutions are unlikely to prevent future exploits using speculative memory execution attacks in processors, Ars Technica reports.

Where the money is. UK banks saw a five-fold increase in the number of data breaches observed last year compared to 2017, according to data from British regulators.

Altered state of mind. Twin girls born in China after a scientist edited their genes may have received a boost in cognition and learning abilities as a result of the procedure, which was supposed to inoculate them from HIV. “New research shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls’ DNA, deletion of a gene called CCR5, not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school,” the MIT Technology Review reports.

Big blue. A slew of popular health and fitness apps said they would curtail sharing sensitive data with Facebook after they were exposed sharing sensitive material with the platform, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Lazarus. Hacker tied to North Korea are increasingly going after targets based in Russia, Dark Reading reports.

Info ops. Microsoft said it is expanding the availability of its free cybersecurity offering for political groups in Europe after the company found Russian hackers targeting political organizations on the continent.

Latin America

Military force. Venezuela’s opposition called for the first time on the international community to consider the use of military force against President Nicolás Maduro, escalating a standoff after a weekend showdown over humanitarian aid ended in violence.

Meeting in Colombia. The proposal comes ahead of a Monday meeting in the Colombian capital Bogotá, where  U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to meet with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as Venezuela’s rightful president by more than 50 countries, including the U.S.

Unflinching portrait. Alejandro Cegarra’s photo series “State of Decay” is an unflinching portrait of Venezuela’s collapse. How this country went from being one of Latin America’s richest societies to one of its poorest is a disaster of bewildering proportions, one that defies easy explanation. From The New Yorker.

China’s ambitions. While Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, remains the biggest prize, China is increasingly focused on making inroads in the region through countries such as Chile, whose fast-growing economy, stable government and natural resources such as lithium — a key component in batteries that power everything from smartphones to electric cars — make it an attractive target for China’s efforts to expand its global reach.

Cuba’s new constitution. Turnout was high as Cuban voters went to the polls Sunday to cast a vote of sí or no for a new constitution in a referendum that has seen more campaigning, both for and against, than any Cuban election in decades.


Chinese expansion. A Chinese port operator is tightening its grip on a strategic container terminal in East Africa, Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal, resetting operations and infrastructure at a site crucial to Beijing’s push to control seagoing trade lanes between Asia and Europe.

Nigeria election. Nigeria faced a second day of voting in scattered areas Sunday in a presidential election seen as too close to call, while the death toll from vote-related violence mounted in Africa’s largest democracy.

Violence in West Africa. With remarkable speed, several countries in the Sahel, the semiarid belt south of the Sahara, have found themselves infested with violent extremist groups, bolstered by seasoned jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria. The violence is surging at a time when the Trump administration is sending conflicting signals about its military commitment to the continent, a message that worries some West African military commanders.

Senegal votes. Senegal President Macky Sall’s team claimed he won re-election in the first-round of voting on Sunday, but the opposition said preliminary election results showed a run-off was unavoidable. The West African nation has long been viewed as the region’s most stable democracy, with peaceful transitions of power since independence in 1960.

AFRICOM’s new logistics hub. U.S. Africa Command plans to begin routing flights to Accra, Ghana, as the hub of a new logistics network to ferry supplies and weapons to the patches of U.S. troops operating across the continent’s increasingly turbulent western region, Katie Bo Williams reports for Defense One.

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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