Koreas open talks; Rebels retreat in Ghouta; Carrier visits Vietnam; State’s anti-propaganda group lacks Russian speakers; and just a bit more…

South Korean officials are in Pyongyang for the first time in a decade. The 10-member delegation, which includes Seoul’s spy chief, will spend two days talking with North Korean counterparts about various issues, including the potential for direct U.S.-DPRK talks, NPR reports. After the talks, the spy chief is expected to fly to Washington to talk with National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

No talks without denuclearization? President Trump reiterated over the weekend that he wants North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal first, a condition that Pyongyang has said is a non-starter.

No pressure, but: the big joint U.S.-ROK wargames that North Korea regards as rehearsal for invasion are scheduled to start in a month. Read the NPR piece, which covers a lot of ground in not a lot of words, here.

“North Korea Foils Sanctions With Shell Game At Sea.” Apropos of the new anti-shipping sanctions imposed by the Trump administration last month: “We spend so much of our time trying to put obstacles in the way of North Korea, and in making the obstacles higher and wider,” said Andrea Berger, a London-based specialist in proliferation networks and export controls with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, “but the North Koreans are simply very practiced at getting around whatever we put in their path.” Stripes, here.

One conduit for North Korea weapons: Egypt. It’s a “furtive trade in illegal weapons that has upset President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s otherwise cozy relationship with the United States,” according to this weekend report from the New York Times.

A U.S. aircraft carrier comes to Danang. NYT: For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, a United States aircraft carrier made a port call in Vietnam on Monday, signaling how China’s rise is bringing together former foes in a significant shift in the region’s geopolitical landscape.” Read, here.

WSJ calls it “a rare win for Washington as China expands its competing economic and military influence elsewhere in Southeast Asia,” here.

In praise of the rules: ‘We’re Gonna Do What International Law Says We Can Do.’ Time’s report from aboard USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea.

Also today: A visit to New Zealand by Adm. Harry Harris, the PACOM commander tapped to be the next ambassador to Australia.

If China had its wish, it would reform “the current United Nations-centered global order,” AP reports from Beijing.

And Trump? A week after China deleted term limits from its constitution (leading the NYT to write about the global resurgence of strongmen), the American president trial-ballooned his own interest in lifelong presidential terms, speaking in an unofficial setting in Florida this weekend, AP reports off audio obtained by CNN this weekend.  

From Defense One

‘We’re Finding It Difficult to Hold’ Territory in Somalia: Senator // Caroline Houck: Somali government forces, African partner nations, and half a thousand U.S. troops are having trouble holding off the extremists of al Shabaab.

Talk About Extremists, But Don’t Politicize the Debate // Sam J. Tangredi: Singer’s call to focus on right-wing extremists is dangerous to a profession that needs to remain above partisan politics.

CYBERCOM Chief Nominee Plans Recommendation on NSA Split Within Three Months // Nextgov’s Joseph Marks: Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone has “no predisposed opinion” about the split, he told lawmakers.

Whatever Happened to Trump’s Counterterrorism Strategy? // Via The Atlantic: Joshua A. Geltzer and Stephen Tankel: His approach borrows from his predecessors’, while exacerbating their worst, most counterproductive tendencies.

In the Competition over Syria’s Reconstruction, China Is the Likely Winner // Stimson Center’s Jesse Marks: Beijing sees a double opportunity in rebuilding the wartorn country: to extend its new Silk Road and expand its economic and political influence westward.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Email us. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. OTD1936: first flight of the prototype Supermarine Spitfire.

Pro-Syrian troops have retaken about a third of the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, just outside the capital of Damascus, Reuters and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report this morning. The advances threaten to cut the rebel-held area in two, an area where round-the-clock violence is only occasionally broken by five-hour pauses, AP writes.
Airstrikes continue today in three regions of Ghouta, even as an aid convoy attempted to reach the besieged 400,000 or so Syrians in Ghouta, Reuters reports this morning.  
We have another term in the propaganda battle that is Syria’s war: “dictionary of lies.” That’s where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said allegations his military has used chemical weapons come from, the Associated Press reported Sunday from Damascus.  
The two-week death toll in Ghouta stands at over 700, SOHR said Sunday.

The White House accused Russia of killing civilians in Ghouta. Those remarks came in a statement Sunday from the WH’s Press Secretary.
The WH’s framing of what’s going on: “After repeatedly delaying the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2401, which demanded a 30-day cessation of hostilities across Syria, Russia has gone on to ignore its terms and to kill innocent civilians under the false auspices of counterterrorism operations. This is the same combination of lies and indiscriminate force that Russia and the Syrian regime used to isolate and destroy Aleppo in 2016, where thousands of civilians were killed.”
The statement also accused Moscow of carrying out a “brutal campaign” of at least 20 air strike missions on Damascus and Eastern Ghouta from Feb 24 to 28. And it called for the “Assad regime, along with its backers in Moscow and Tehran, should adhere to UNSCR 2401, cease hostilities in and around Eastern Ghouta, and allow unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid to the nearly 400,000 innocent civilians in critical need.”
BTW: Syria let the first aid trucks into Ghouta today, but not until “government authorities” stripped it of medical supplies, according to the World Health Organization.
Removed: “surgical kits, insulin, [and] dialysis equipment,” among other items. According to Reuters, “Syrian government officials had rejected 70 percent of the supplies it had prepared for Monday’s convoy.” More here.

Kabul’s offer of peace talks with the Taliban has “run into a wall,” the Associated Press reported Sunday.
What that wall is made of: “the Taliban’s insistence that its ‘Islamic Emirate,’ ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 for hosting al-Qaida, remains Afghanistan’s legitimate government.” More to those perpetual dynamics, here.

Russia is still hungry for attention. And now it has launched a contest to name its allegedly new nuclear weapons, AP reported separately Sunday from Moscow.

To fight Russian propaganda, the U.S. State Department has tasked exactly zero Russian speakers for the job, the New York Times reported this weekend.
The entity in question: the Global Engagement Center, whose job involves “counter[ing] foreign efforts to meddle in elections or sow distrust in democracy.”
Their budget: $120 million since late 2016.
How much has been spent: $0.00.
How much Russia is known to spend monthly, according to charges leveled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller: More than $1 million each month, Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote this morning on Twitter.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia want to build a $10 billion “megacity” in the southern Sinai, Reuters reports. The space is set to take up more than 1,000 square kilometers of land. “The deal came at the start of Prince Mohammed’s first public trip abroad since becoming heir apparent last year and purging the kingdom’s business and political elite in a crackdown on corruption that saw top princes and businessmen detained.”
The bigger picture: “Cairo supports Riyadh in its fight against Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen, and last year joined a Saudi-led boycott of Gulf state Qatar… As Egypt tries to keep a lid on any internal unrest, it has sided firmly with Saudi Arabia on key foreign policy issues including the face-off between the Sunni kingdom and its Shi’ite foe Iran.”

Finally today, this headline: “Michigan man shows up in Chicago ER after getting wounded 6,200 miles away in Syria.” It comes to us from the Chicago Tribune, which learned the story of 23-year-old Caleb Stevens. He rolled into the Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s ER in January “on crutches” and in “pain from a week-old gunshot wound.”
One (of many) odd things about this story: Stevens attended West Point for two years and then split in August 2014. “After leaving West Point, Stevens worked at a horse ranch in Indiana, a ranch in Australia and taught English and computer science in Mali in Africa, he said. Then he enrolled in Deep Springs College, a tiny school on the California-Nevada border that focuses on service and working the land. It was there he studied agricultural policy and infectious diseases.” But it was also at Deep Springs that Stevens learned to speak Kurdish.
How he wound up in Syria fighting ISIS on behalf of the Kurdish YPG is quite a longer story. Read on to find out how he went from a lefty university in California to coping with a sniper’s bullet in his calf halfway around the world in the Windy City, here.

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