What happened in Hanoi? Hours after the second U.S.-North Korean summit broke up early, Pyongyang’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho gave what the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng called an “extraordinary midnight press conference” in which he directly contradicted President Trump’s account of how the talks collapsed.
Ri said North Korea has been clear on its position for months: It was prepared to shut down the nuclear facility at Yongbyon in return for the lifting of UN sanctions. “When the U.S. demanded a further step beyond Yongbyon, Mr. Ri said, ‘it became crystal clear that the U.S. was not ready to accept our proposal,’” reported Cheng.
That seemed to take Team Trump by surprise. In his own press conference a few hours earlier, POTUS said, “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.” (Here’s the transcript.)
And that shouldn’t have happened, Jeffrey Lewis writes in the Washington Post. Over the past months, North Korean officials had been saying that they were willing to close Yongbyon — and nothing else — in exchange for sanctions relief.
U.S. officials had long been publicly misrepresenting what Pyongyang was saying, says Lewis, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey: “For example, in a recent speech at Stanford University, the Trump administration’s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, flatly asserted that North Korea had privately offered to close much more than just Yongbyon.”
The summit’s collapse shows that wasn’t true. “Biegun was wrong. When the United States tried to press North Korea on this imaginary commitment to close “more” locations, the North Korean position remained the same as it has been since the fall.”
This begs the question: Were Biegun, Pompeo, and Trump intentionally misrepresenting what the North Koreans were saying — or did they really not understand what was going on?
Two clues: 1) Trump has yet to fill several top policy, defense, and diplomatic leadership positions that relate to East Asia, leaving gaps in expertise and staffing. And 2) the rest of the U.S. government’s national-security policy staff and process was dealt enormous blows early on by the Trump administration, Politico reports today. (More on this below.)
From here? Lower-level talks might continue. After all, as DPRK state media rather elliptically put it, “Leaders of DPRK and US agreed that #HanoiSummit was an important occasion in which they cemented their respect and trust for each other and the two countries’ relations advanced to a new level.”
On the plus side: There is room for diplomatic progress and deals, argues James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment, though he notes that his Carnegie colleague Jarrett Blanc says that Trump’s national-security team has proven “too chaotic and unprofessional” to get the details right.
The Trump administration appears to have two paths forward, writes MIT’s Vipin Narang: “(1) the Biegun Option: Use “no deal” to reinvigorate working-level [talks] to narrow differences, assuming NK still willing to dance. Or (2) Bolton Option: Use “no deal” as evidence NK isn’t serious and…hang on to your hats.”
And Kim has clearly thought ahead, Lewis notes: “During his annual speech on New Year’s Day, he stated directly that negotiations would collapse if the United States ‘persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic.’ Without sanctions relief, he threatened, ‘we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state’ … What that new way might be, he did not specify.”
From Defense One
US Influence Over India-Pakistan Crisis in Question // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: Trump officials are working the phones, but “the U.S. position seems to be ‘You guys figure it out yourselves.’”
Russia’s Pistol-Packing Robot Is Scrambling for Parts // Paulina Glass: The program’s foreign suppliers stopped shipping components after gunfire videos went viral.
Legislative Hurdle Delays U.S. Space Command Stand-Up // Marcus Weisgerber: Pentagon can’t move ahead until Congress repeals a provision in the 2019 defense authorization act.
Bibi’s Iran War Tweet Just Backfired // Sarah Chayes and Amir Soltani: Netanyahu’s ‘war with Iran’ quip is a gift to the regime — and his latest strategic failure.
Trump Was Right to Walk Away — If He’s Telling the Truth // Tom Z. Collina: North Korea disputes his account, but either way they must reset and try again, soon.
How to End the Worst India-Pakistan Crisis in a Generation // Ankit Panda, The Atlantic: Stepping back from the brink now will require political courage in New Delhi and reciprocity in Islamabad.
Wait, how many generals for Space Force?; Radar battle heats up; Boeing’s combat drones // Marcus Weisgerber: This week’s Global Business Brief.
Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1941, “Captain America” made his first appearance in a comic book thanks to artist Jack Kirby. Find his cover over at Marvel’s website, here.
The U.S. will protect the Philippines if their planes or ships are attacked in the South China Sea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Thursday in Manila, the Washington Post reports during his return trip from Hanoi.
Said Pompeo: “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”
Bigger picture: “Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has called for a review of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between Washington and Manila, the agreement that guarantees a U.S. military response if the Philippines is to be attacked. The Philippine defense establishment has long argued that the language of the document is too vague, especially as China gets more aggressive in the waters off the Philippine archipelago.” Read on, here.
For your ears only: “The Chinese were very good at rewarding [Philippine President Rody] Duterte just enough to sell the narrative that what he was doing worked — which is Duterte came into office; his predisposition is that the Americans are untrustworthy, they won’t actually fight and die for Filipinos; we have no choice in the South China Sea but slaughter or surrender… The Chinese fed that narrative. They said, ‘You’re right. The Americans are not going to back you up. You know that. I know that. Ignore what Washington says. Let’s negotiate.’” That’s Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS in Washington. He’s one of five experts and scholars who joined us for our two-part deep-dive into U.S.-China tensions beginning with the South China Sea. Read or listen to the rest from those two episodes, here and here.
The latest in India-Pakistan tensions. There are still lots of moving pieces, so we’ll be brief and bulletize what we know of what’s changed since Thursday morning:
- The captured Indian pilot “is expected be returned at the Wagah border crossing between the two countries on Friday afternoon.” (Reuters, which also has a fairly detailed account of the pilot’s alleged actions after landing in Pakistan)
- Update: The pilot has made it back to India. More from NDTV, here.
- The Indian Air Force appears to not have hit much of anything during Tuesday’s strikes, open-source analysts are discovering. (h/t @nktpnd)
- Pakistan has partially re-opened its airspace. (Fox News)
- Pakistan’s military chief “has spoken with top military personnel from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia,” according to CNN, which is keeping a developing story page open and updated here.
Word of warning: Regarding these India-Pakistan tensions, “several false videos, pictures and messages circulated widely on social media, sparking anger and heightening tension in both countries,” Reuter reported separately Thursday morning.
The U.S. and NATO and “all foreign troops” could leave Afghanistan in three to five years, under a Pentagon proposal offered as a way to “help talks with the Taliban that are being led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American special envoy,” the New York Times reported Thursday.
The quick read: “The plan calls for cutting by half, in coming months, the 14,000 American troops currently in Afghanistan. It would task the 8,600 European and other international troops with training the Afghan military — a focus of the NATO mission for more than a decade — and largely shift American operations to counterterrorism strikes.”
One lesson appears to have been learned in the last few months: “European allies said they had been consulted about the proposal — a stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement in December to withdraw American forces from Syria.” Read on at the Times, here.
Also on Thursday, Trump told U.S. soldiers that 100 percent of ISIS territory in Syria has been recaptured — while the battle is still raging and “just hours after the U.S.-backed forces on the ground said victory was a week away,” Reuters Phil Stewart reported Thursday.
“We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent, the caliphate in Syria. Now it’s 100 percent we just took over, 100 percent caliphate,” Trump told troops in Alaska during a stopover on his return trip home from Hanoi.
Worth noting, via Reuters reporting today from the outskirts of Baghouz, Syria: “The coalition said late on Thursday it had killed veteran French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced a recording claiming responsibility for the November 2015 attacks on Paris, in a strike in Baghouz. It did not say when he had been killed.”
A complex attack by al-Shabaab in Mogadishu has killed 29 people so far, Reuters reports from the Somali capital. The situation appears to be ongoing, but here’s the latest from Reuters: “Islamist al Shabaab fighters set off a bomb outside the Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama on Thursday night before retreating to an adjacent building, from where they fired on soldiers who tried to enter. Another bomb exploded later about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) away. Rescuers said the number of dead from the first explosion, which destroyed several buildings, could well rise.” More here. Or follow Voice of America’s Harun Maruf on Twitter for the latest.
Related: The U.S. military is on pace to triple the number of airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia this year over the previous year. And 2018 already set a new record in Somalia with 47 annual U.S. airstrikes. At the current 2019 pace, we’ll end with 146. (Data via The Long War Journal / AFRICOM)
Naval safety tip: Booze at the helm of a ship is a bad idea. “An allegedly intoxicated Russian sailor with poor English skills has crashed a cargo ship into a bridge in South Korea,” ripping a five-meter hole into the span, according to the Moscow Times on Thursday.
For the record, “A [Korean Coast Guard] official said consuming alcohol aboard a vessel isn’t punishable by law as long as the person doesn’t steer the ship. The official added it wasn’t yet clear if the Russian captain had been at the helm at the time of the accident.” More from the original report from RoK’s Yonhap news, here.
And we leave you this Friday with some weekend reading from Politico’s Nahal Toosi. She’s just published a heckuva #LongRead about “a White House that wasn’t ready to run the world,” according to accounts from multiple former national security officials during the Trump administration’s first few days.
For example: “[C]onservative commentator Sebastian Gorka, would show up at random meetings, even though it was never clear whether he had the proper security clearance, and he would often raise unrelated points. One former White House official recalled Gorka saying such things as, ‘If you look at what Napoleon did …’ and we’d all be like, ‘I don’t even know how to respond to that.’”
The so-what: “Now, two years into Trump’s tenure, current and former U.S. officials say they are worried about the long-term damage his administration is still doing to the way such critical decisions are made — with dangerous consequences that are not always easy to perceive.” Worth the click, here.
Be safe this weekend, and we’ll catch you again on Monday!