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Daily Memo: South Korea Wants to Resume Nuclear Talks

North Korea has nothing to say to the U.S. Efforts are underway for the possible resumption of denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States. South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator on Friday met separately with the top Chinese and Russian envoys to Seoul to discuss the situation on the Peninsula. On Monday, the South’s nominee for unification minister said North-South dialogue should continue under any circumstances. And the South Korean Foreign Ministry confirmed that Stephen Biegun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, will arrive in Seoul on Tuesday to discuss the stalled nuclear talks with his South Korean counterpart and other members of the South Korean Foreign Ministry. Biegun will then head to Tokyo for similar discussions. These developments suggest South Korean President Moon Jae-in is still intent on holding another round of U.S.-North Korean talks in October, just ahead of U.S. elections. But Moon will have his work cut out for him: North Korea’s first vice foreign minister said Saturday that Pyongyang sees no need to meet with U.S. officials and that the North already had a strategic timetable designed to contain long-term threats from the United States. Europe’s mixed signals. With less than two weeks to go […]

Iraq, Caught Between a Neighbor and a Superpower

Late in the evening of June 16, Iraqi counterterrorism forces stormed the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iran militia, arresting 14 insurgents and confiscating three Katyusha rocket launchers suspected of being part of a planned attack on U.S. forces. After three months of tough talk and promised reform, Iraq’s newly minted prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, had done what his predecessors either could not or would not: crack down on local Iraqi militias loyal to Iran. This was seen as a crucial first step toward eliminating Iran’s foothold within Iraq’s security infrastructure, a move intended to satisfy long-term U.S. demands (especially as Washington has begun negotiating with Iraq over the future status of U.S.-led coalition forces in the country). Some Iraqi officials even characterized the raid as a joint Iraq-U.S. triumph, asserting that three Kataib Hezbollah leaders had been handed over to the U.S. military. (The spokesman for the U.S. coalition denied this.) But emerging details have burst this bubble. For example, Iraqi forces transferred custody of the Kataib Hezbollah detainees to another pro-Iran militia, the Popular Mobilization Forces, which reside under the umbrella of the Iraqi Security Forces. The PMF released the suspects 13 days later, after an Iraqi court […]

Daily Memo: Russian Constitutional Reforms, Korean Compromises

Russian reforms. In a seven-day referendum that ended on Wednesday, 77.9 percent of Russians voted to approve more than 200 amendments to the constitution, one of which would allow President Vladimir Putin to run for reelection in 2024. According to Russian daily Kommersant, the turnout was 68 percent, more than 10 percentage points higher than the turnout for the 1993 constitution. The highest turnout and vote of approval were in Chechnya, where 97.9 percent of voters were in favor of the changes and 95.1 percent of people cast a ballot. The regions of Tuva (96.8 percent approval), Crimea (90.1 percent), Dagestan (89.2 percent) and the Yamalo-Nenets District (89.2 percent) had the next highest levels of support. The Nenets Autonomous Region was the only region where the majority of Russians voted against the amendments (55.3 percent). Yakutia (40.7 percent disapproval) and Kamchatka (37.2 percent) regions also had high votes against the reforms. On the last day of the vote, uncoordinated protests against the changes took place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Blagoveshchensk, Khanty-Mansiysk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk and other cities. The demonstrations were fairly small, however; the biggest was in Moscow with 400 participants. Korean compromises. South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants U.S. […]

Daily Memo: Turkey at the Center of NATO Frictions

NATO revolves around Turkey. After a seven-month standoff, Turkey finally lifted its veto and allowed the alliance to approve a defense plan for Poland and the Baltic states. Reuters reported in November 2019 that Turkey was blocking the plan in order to pressure its NATO allies to recognize the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist group. (A number of NATO states, including the U.S., have partnered with the YPG in Syria and thus refused to back down.) The operational outline of the defense plan for the bloc’s eastern frontier is classified, but it reportedly includes bulking up air defenses and speeding up the deployment of allied ground forces in the event of conflict with Russia. But frictions between Turkey and other NATO member states are far from over. The latest disagreement centers on the Mediterranean Sea. According to Turkey’s ambassador to France, the French informed the Turks and NATO that they are suspending their involvement in NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian. France accused Turkey last month of behaving aggressively toward a French warship, the frigate Courbet, as it was participating in the alliance’s maritime security operation. The Turkish ambassador said Paris’ withdrawal came after a NATO investigation into […]

Beijing’s Big Bet in Hong Kong

When Beijing retook control of Hong Kong from the British 23 years ago, the understanding was that Hong Kong would maintain a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework for a period of 50 years. On Tuesday, the Communist Party of China declared that that time was up. And it did so with striking ease. There was no bloody Tiananmen-style showdown between the army and pro-democracy protesters; no tanks inside Victoria Park. Beijing merely had its rubber-stamp legislature unanimously approve a sweeping national security law – one first announced just a month ago and never released for public comment – bypassing the Hong Kong legislature in violation of the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law. The move presages a dramatic deterioration of political freedoms in Hong Kong. The security law, which will be enforced by separate courts and security forces effectively controlled by Beijing, is conspicuously broad, meaning things like peaceful pro-democracy protests, anti-CPC editorials and school curricula that don’t toe the party line could realistically be defined as “separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.” At minimum, uncertainty about how the law will be enforced will have a chilling effect on civil society in Hong […]

Daily Memo: One Country, One System?

“One country, two systems” circles the drain. On Tuesday, China’s National People’s Congress voted unanimously to pass the contentious new Hong Kong national security legislation. President Xi Jinping reportedly signed the bill, which has still not been made public but is expected to be written in a way that would effectively outlaw pro-democracy protests and anti-Communist Party media, into law shortly thereafter. This comes two days after Hong Kong police detained at least 53 people — some of them reportedly bystanders — at a rally opposing the law, and a day before Hong Kong’s annual July 1 mass pro-democracy march (which Hong Kong police have banned, conveniently on the grounds of COVID-19). The pro-democracy community in Hong Kong is understandably freaking out. For example, Demosisto, a prominent advocacy group behind some of the past year’s protests, announced that it would disband. Several other civil society groups have announced similar moves. Activists are also reportedly scrambling to delete social media posts that could prove incriminating. This speaks to a core goal of the law: to get Hong Kongers to start censoring themselves and think twice before criticizing the Chinese Communist Party, effectively allowing Beijing to stifle dissent without having to take […]

The ‘Spies and Commandos’ of Afghanistan

The media exploded late last week with reports that Russia had paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. and Afghan troops. The plot was...

Daily Memo: Contests for Influence in Iraq and the South China...

Iran’s diminished influence. Iranian influence in Iraq suffered a major blow after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi directed a raid last week on a Kataib Hezbollah post, leading to the arrest of over a dozen fighters and the confiscation of weapons systems. Several Iran-backed militias have accused the U.S. and Iraq of fomenting division, but the Iranian government itself has been careful not to publicly incite further tensions with Iraq. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, for example, said that the raid was an internal Iraqi affair and that Iran has no comment. At the same time, Tehran issued arrest warrants for U.S. President Donald Trump and 30 other U.S. officials for their involvement in the Jan. 3 killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. It also asked Interpol to honor the warrants. The Iranian government knows nothing will come of this, but it intends for the request to serve as a warning against U.S. interference in Iraq. The COVID-19 crisis and U.S. sanctions continue to hamper Iran’s ability to finance its militias and political proxies in Iraq. After billions of dollars in Iranian central bank assets were frozen under U.S. sanctions and the Iranian rial fell to its lowest level […]

The Caesar Act and Assad’s Moment of Reckoning

Last December, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act – with strong bipartisan Congressional support – to hold the Syrian regime accountable for atrocities committed by security forces against protesters who demanded political reforms. The measure was born from a report prepared by the Syria Study Group of the United States Institute of Peace arguing that to safeguard its national security, the U.S. ought to quit downplaying its role in shaping the outcome of the Syrian conflict. The report rejected Bashar Assad’s claim that his government had won the war and that the world must accept its legitimacy as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The Caesar Act took effect earlier this month as the familiar battle lines in the war are wearing down. Russia has consolidated its naval and air presence along the coast and reached terms with Turkey to de-escalate tensions in northwestern Syria. The Kurds control most of the northeast. The Islamic State is defeated, and its remnants have gone underground. The U.S. has been criticized for years for being able to articulate what it didn’t want in Syria but never what it wanted. The Caesar Act means to fix this, not […]

Daily Memo: Russo-Indian Defense Deals, Iraq Cracks Down on Iranian Influence

Russia and India pick up the pace. The Russian government will accelerate implementation of a defense contract with India that includes delivery of five S-400 air defense systems, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant. New Delhi was originally set to receive the first S-400 in 2021, but after a three-day visit to Moscow by India’s defense minister, India now expects initial delivery by the end of this year. Russia and India are also intensifying negotiations over a contract for the supply of 21 MiG-29 fighters and 12 Su-30MKI fighters – an arrangement estimated to be worth $650 million. New Delhi is concerned with preserving the long-term balance of power on two borders simultaneously – with China and with Pakistan, both of which are accelerating the modernization of their air forces – and thus wants to pick up the pace of the Russian defense deals. Iraq gets tough on Iranian influence. Iraqi security forces carried out an overnight raid in southern Baghdad of the headquarters of an influential Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah. They confiscated rocket launchers and detained over a dozen fighters for their alleged involvement in missile attacks on U.S. and coalition bases over the past year. Though the Iraqi government said […]

India Rising

India’s days as a fairly quiet giant on the world stage are coming to an end. For much of the 21st century, India has punched well below its weight in international affairs. It is the seventh-largest country in the world by area and has the second-largest population, with nearly 1.38 billion inhabitants. Considering its younger demographics, it’s on pace to soon surpass China as the largest country in the world by population. Its economy has steadily climbed in the global ranks over the past two decades and now stands as the fifth-largest. It’s a major energy consumer, and its naval potential could affect China’s power projection capabilities. But the country has so far been unable to drive global events or influence the actions of global players like the United States, Germany, Russia and China to any substantial degree. This appears to be changing, however. The global center of gravity, both militarily and economically, is shifting from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, bringing India front and center in world affairs. Considering that this comes at a time when India’s relative power is increasing, it appears that the country is set to earn a more prominent role in the international system. […]

Daily Memo: IMF Warnings, Japanese Defenses

Lebanon’s economic woes. The International Monetary Fund has warned that Lebanon’s central bank has accumulated $49 billion in losses due to defaults on bond holdings and the falling value of the country’s currency. The country appears headed toward hyperinflation; in some areas of Lebanon, the Lebanese currency is now trading at 7,000 lira to the dollar. (Officially, the lira is pegged at 1,507.5 to the dollar and has lost over 75 percent of its value since October.) Some people are trying to use this as an opportunity to turn a profit by selling newly purchased dollars at the higher exchange rate at currency shops. On Wednesday, the Lebanese parliament began reviewing steps to declare a financial state of emergency to protect the lira. Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri warned that Lebanon wouldn’t receive “one penny” in aid from outside actors if it didn’t implement serious political and economic reforms. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that sentiment on Thursday, saying the U.S. was prepared to offer its support on the condition that Lebanon carries out national reforms. The U.S. also indicated that the IMF would provide assistance only if Lebanon enacted internal reforms. Tokyo reconsiders its defense systems. Japan is […]