Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
North Korea: Conscious recoupling
With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to North Korea on ice, we assess that other countries aren’t waiting for Kim Jong Un to denuclearize before moving ahead with their own diplomatic and economic relief initiatives with him.
Rather than being treated as a rogue regime bucking international laws, Kim is being treated as an equal by your peers.
Your decision to publicly acknowledge the lack of progress on denuclearization will probably not put the brakes on the momentum behind the Kim train – we assess that other countries will consciously continue to recouple with him for self-interested reasons. They may judge that the benefits of engaging with Kim outweigh the risks of going against your policy of maximum pressure. They may also take note of your openness to meeting Kim again and may think that if you can spend time with Kim, so can they.
Your tweet on Friday calling out China for not supporting denuclearization is unlikely to change Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reported plans to visit North Korea next month, and his visit would undoubtedly focus on getting North Korea some immediate relief. You have blamed China for stymieing progress on denuclearization before, and that has not stopped the Chinese from defending North Korea diplomatically and urging sanctions relief for Kim’s regime. To date, placing the blame on Xi has not led the Chinese to change course. Xi is going full steam ahead.
In the aftermath of your decision to postpone the next round of negotiations, you should expect the Chinese to do what they’ve historically done best: blame the United States for any problems on the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese called your decision to cancel Pompeo’s trip “irresponsible” and said they support “advancing the process of a political settlement” following your summit, without addressing the fact, as cited by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) last week, that North Korea continues to pursue an illegal nuclear program.
China has called for a phased, step-by-step approach to denuclearization under which Kim would get something for every step he took toward denuclearization.
Kim did keep one of the commitments he made to you in Singapore – he returned POW remains – but that step has nothing to do with denuclearization. Regardless, expect North Korea’s supporters in Beijing and Moscow to argue that Kim hasn’t denuclearized because you haven’t kept up your end of the deal and rewarded him for steps he has taken.
South Korea took a measured response to the postponement of Pompeo’s trip, referencing the need to take a “long term view” and “maintain momentum toward dialogue” – rather than focusing on Kim’s failure to denuclearize. That’s probably because South Korean President Moon Jae-in is moving ahead with economically lucrative inter-Korean integration plans.
South Korea will soon open a diplomatic liaison office in North Korea, and Moon spoke recently about a broad range of economic integration initiatives he is pursuing with Kim. He’s put the value of this integration at over $60 billion over the next 30 years. He’s detailed plans to build railroads connecting the Koreas to each other and to Russia and China, resuming tours of North Korea’s Mount Kumgang, and re-opening the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea.
Moon is likely aware that his plan could damage his relationship with you because it goes against the economic pressure you have said will remain in place until Kim denuclearizes. But his approval ratings have dipped recently, and he is under pressure at home to revitalize the South Korean economy as well as show tangible signs that staking so much of his personal reputation on improving relations with North Korea was worth it.
We should assume that both China and Russia – countries Moon would get new links to via North Korea – are privately pushing Moon to move ahead with his economic integration plans. Plus, they would get their own economic and geopolitical benefits from fostering a close relationship with South Korea while it potentially falls out of favor with the United States.
It has been reported that Japan is contemplating providing an aid package to North Korea to bring closure on the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. If relations are normalized, and the abductees are returned, Japan may be ready to give Kim $10 billion in economic assistance. The outstanding question is whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would pin that aid on North Korean denuclearization. Abe has previously said he wants to meet with Kim, and he may press ahead with a summit to ensure the return of abductees.
No global mute button
As our law enforcement community continues their work on various legal cases involving your former associates, Mr. President, we are providing you with an assessment of how other leaders may assess the legal imbroglio here at home.
Because Russian President Vladimir Putin is focused on highlighting alleged shortcomings in our democracy, we should expect him to amplify a narrative that you are abusing your powers and trying to inappropriately interfere with our independent legal system for personal or political purposes, including by trying to influence what the Department of Justice should investigate and threatening them if they don’t agree with your guidance. This helps him undermine the basis of our democratic institutions: The separation of powers.
Countries whom the US has condemned for abusing their law enforcement systems for political purposes may also perceive a degree of hypocrisy if they believe you are trying to interfere with legal proceedings or act against Attorney General Jeff Sessions when you disagree with him. Countries we have recently sanctioned for abusing executive powers to influence law enforcement – like Turkey and Venezuela – may point out a failure to practice at home what we preach abroad.
Foreign counterparts may take a wait-and-see approach before diving into negotiations with you on long-term agreements and policy initiatives that may not have staying power after your administration. They may want to see how midterm elections turn out – and if Republicans remain in control of Congress – because they believe that could impact any congressional actions, including possibly impeachment, against you.
Russia: Filling in for the United States
We assess that Russia is continuing its strategy of trying to fill in for the US, and ultimately replace us, in various high-level negotiations and relationships.
President Trump, a year after your speech unveiling your strategy for Afghanistan and on the heels of a successful strike against the head of ISIS in that country, Russia is trying to offset US efforts to negotiate an end to the violence.
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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani publicly extended a ceasefire offer to the Taliban, and your team has been working to broker negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. Russia, uncoincidentally, announced their own separate conference on the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban will attend. Russia still labels it a terrorist organization but Putin has been selectively engaging with them for years.
The Afghan government has said, “any discussions that are organized outside the government-led peace process will not yield results.” The US has also said we will not attend this separate, uncoordinated track of discussions. Even without the government of Afghanistan participating, Russia will forge ahead with talks with the Taliban because it wants to fill in for the United States as the go-to mediator-in-chief on this conflict, just like it is doing for Syria and even the US-North Korea tensions.
As an update to our last briefing to you on Syria, Putin is likely looking to fill in for us in Syria. We assess that he is looking to capitalize on your decision to step back in the war-torn country. And the timing of a video announcing Russian troop numbers and accomplishments in Syria – was probably not coincidental. It is likely propaganda designed to showcase Russia’s longstanding – and in their eyes, successful – commitment to Syria in contrast to your decision to cut US assistance and weigh a troop withdrawal.