Security Brief

North Korea Talks Stall Despite Trump Overtures on New Summit

When it comes to meeting with Kim Jong Un, the administration is still sending mixed messages.

U.S. President Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea on July 30, 2019.
U.S. President Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea on July 30, 2019. Dong-A Ilbo/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Another chapter begins in the stop-start North Korea nuclear talks, the Russian military seems to sour on Putin, and a star impeachment witness resigns from the military after alleging bullying and retaliation.

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No Steps Forward, One Step Back?

U.S. President Donald Trump this week suggested that North Korea could be open to another face-to-face summit to advance the long stalled nuclear talks that were supposed to be a hallmark diplomatic achievement of Trump’s presidency. “I understand they want to meet and we would certainly do that,” Trump said in an interview with Voice of America on Tuesday. “I would do it if I thought it was going to be helpful.”

But on Thursday, his top envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, returned from a visit to Seoul largely empty handed: There are no public signals that the North Koreans would return to talks. The State Department readout of Biegun’s trip mentioned “continued U.S. readiness to engage in dialogue with the DPRK” to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, but so far Pyongyang hasn’t shown any willingness to play ball.

Mixed messages. The hot and cold nature of the talks is emblematic of North Korea’s longstanding strategy of opening up diplomatic channels with South Korea and the United States, and then abruptly closing them off and ratcheting up tensions to extract more concessions. This pattern is now layered on top of the Trump administration’s mixed messaging: Trump’s suggestion that he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un again came a just week after Biegun said such a meeting would be unlikely before the November U.S. elections.

New nuclear activity. Meanwhile, new satellite images show a flurry of activity at a previously undeclared facility in North Korea potentially used to produce nuclear warheads, as CNN reports. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, criticized aspects of the president’s summits with Kim and said the nuclear threat from Pyongyang is greater today than it was before Trump’s summits. Some veteran North Korea watchers predict that the country will begin a new round of saber-rattling before the U.S. election cycle wraps up, so watch this space.

 What We’re Watching

 Afghan bounties fallout continues. Top U.S. lawmakers are demanding answers from the Trump administration on the nature of Russian bounties on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan—and who knew what when. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who is one of the president’s leading critics on the issue, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday requesting more information after what she called a “disappointing” closed briefing to senators. In the letter, Duckworth requests details on whether the Pentagon investigated whether U.S. service member deaths are related to the alleged Russian bounty program and whether there are concurrent investigations conducted by the U.S. intelligence community.

Putin on the fritz? An interesting trend has emerged from the results of the recent vote on Russia’s proposed constitutional amendments. While 77.92 percent of Russians voted in favor of the changes—giving President Vladimir Putin far-reaching powers the potential to extend his rule to 2036—parts of the country where members of the military and their families live recorded a noticeably high degree of opposition. This could be a worrying trend in a country where the military is traditionally seen as one of Putin’s most loyal backers. His authoritarian rule depends, in large part, on military strength.

Meanwhile, Putin’s not-so-effective response to the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s ailing economy has eroded the president’s popularity, as a new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes. The constitutional changes mean that Putin isn’t going anywhere, but his grip on the country is still eroding.

Gone with the Vindman. The saga of a star impeachment witness took a big turn yesterday when Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman—once the National Security Council’s top Ukraine aide—announced his retirement from the military on Wednesday, telling Foreign Policy through a statement from his lawyer that he faced a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” that would hold back his career. Trump had already fired Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, who was not involved in the impeachment hearings.

But the news came as a surprise to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which was preparing a list of promotions including Vindman’s name to send to the White House when the news of his retirement broke, a senior defense official told Foreign Policy. But the saga is not yet over on Capitol Hill: Sen. Duckworth is keeping a partial hold on 1,123 U.S. military promotions until Esper “provides a transparent accounting” of the Vindman case. Esper, who said Vindman would not face retaliation for his testimony, will be questioned on the issue when he heads to the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing later today.

Pentagon talking-point bingo. When Esper and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley head up to the House Armed Services Committee today to defend the Pentagon’s response to protests in Washington last month, they’ll be relying heavily on tried and true Pentagon jargon talking points. Follow Jack—who will be tracking the hearing—to see how many Esper and Milley hit.

Neighborhood rivalry. India is ramping up its military arsenal after recent deadly border skirmishes with China. Amid the mounting tensions, the Indian government approved a series of arms projects worth $5.55 billion, which included domestic projects worth $4.44 billion.

The Week Ahead

 The United States has committed to reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan by this date as part of the peace deal with the Taliban by Monday, July 13.

Odds and Ends

Undiplomatic. Gordon Buoy, the South Sudanese deputy ambassador to the United States, caused a stir on social media after he was recorded relieving himself while he was participating in a video conference panel discussion. Friendly reminder to mute your Zoom lines and turn off the camera when you use the commode.

Trenched in. Russian authorities have dug a series of trenches around the remote Siberian village of Shuluta to enforce a quarantine after dozens of villagers tested positive for COVID-19. The trenches surround Shuluta “in an almost complete ring,” with a stated purpose of both keeping villagers in and tourists out.

And the Winner Is…

 Last week we asked readers for some of the best (and worst) military exercise names out there. Thanks to all the readers who responded by email or Twitter. Without further ado, the final list:

Winner: “Llama Fury,” an explosive ordnance disposal training exercise.

H/T Joseph for first bringing Security Brief’s attention to this one.

Runner up: “Dynamic Mongoose,” a fan favorite NATO maritime exercise in the North Atlantic, presumably to hone the dynamism of NATO’s mongoose fleet.

Honorable Mentions:

“Capable Logistician,” h/t Anna, one of our readers, for flagging this adrenaline rush of a NATO exercise.

“Winter Tears,” h/t another Security Brief reader, Nick, who said he participated in this gloomy exercise as a British Army officer.

That’s it for today.

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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