What to expect from Pompeo's Asia trip

CNN's National Security analyst Sam Vinograd breaks down highlights from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Asia trip.

Posted: Oct 8, 2018 4:07 PM
Updated: Oct 8, 2018 4:07 PM

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 President Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.

Here's this week's briefing:

Koreas: Silver Linings Playbook

We assess that Kim Jong Un's strategy is to give you pyrrhic victories so that you stay engaged in denuclearization negotiations, but he doesn't lose his edge. His silver linings playbook includes manipulating your team and our allies, like South Korea.

Coming out of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's fourth trip to North Korea, an immediate public silver lining is that Pompeo didn't get insulted this time around. While the North Koreans criticized Pompeo's demands as gangster-like during his last trip, commentary this time was more positive, including from Kim himself. But this isn't necessarily a win; the failure to criticize Pompeo may just be a signal that Kim thinks Pompeo expressed a willingness to do what Kim wants in terms of giving him some concessions.

Kim knows that dragging negotiations out as long as possible works to his advantage -- there hasn't been a freeze on his nuclear weapon proliferation activities. Your agreement to meet with Kim again, despite a lack of tangible progress toward denuclearization, likely makes Kim think he's getting one up on you and normalizing himself in the eyes of the public.

While Kim probably feels he's giving you the silver lining of a second summit, he likely expects you will come bearing gifts. Kim's pledge to allow inspectors to visit an already dismantled nuclear test site is what he'll cite as a concession to you when in fact it's a distraction. Kim didn't let inspectors visit the site before he reportedly dismantled it, so they have no way of knowing what the site looked like or how it functioned before Kim took it apart. They'll see a shell of what was once there, which won't help them better understand the breadth and depth of North Korea's nuclear activities. Plus, as we've briefed you before, Kim is probably trying to get you to focus on his cessation of missile tests and dismantlement of test sites because he doesn't need them anymore; he's achieved his nuclear objectives.

The North Koreans have said they won't take any steps to denuclearize unless you give them something in return -- a talking point that the South Koreans are echoing. So if you see Kim again and expect him to follow up on his pledges to allow US inspectors to monitor the dismantlement of nuclear facilities and to permanently dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, he's expecting you to come with a carrot for him, like agreeing to announce an end to the Korean War.

All these silver linings help Kim because they are getting him more friends. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has become the mediator between the United States and North Korea -- a move you may consider a silver lining because Moon is our ally -- President Moon has different objectives and preferred tactics than we do. He and Kim are getting closer every day.

Silver linings aside, our assessment remains that North Korea continues to advance its illegal nuclear program. Its refusal to allow inspectors to conduct an inventory of its nuclear program, a basic first step in any actual denuclearization process, likely means it's just trying to buy time. And it's using that time to produce more weapons and make more friends.

China: Getting Dirty

Vice President Pence's airing of China's dirty laundry has already gotten a public rebuttal from Beijing. After Pence's speech, your decision to sanction China's military for buying Russian arms, and reporting on China's efforts to infiltrate US supply chains and technology companies, we assess that China will continue to deny all of your allegations, while looking at asymmetric ways to punish you for criticizing them. And remember, China doesn't play by the same rules as we do, economically, diplomatically, or militarily. They make people disappear, accuse them of corruption -- often as a pretense to detain them -- censor bad news, and can even subsidize industries that you're attacking with tariffs.

Chinese propaganda is nothing new. Its overt information warfare activities have been outed for some time, and the Department of Justice's decision to require some Chinese media outlets to register as foreign agents is a prime data point. Your focus on their propaganda efforts, however, will probably lead them to criticize how your policies hurt Americans and break international rules. They think it really gets under your skin.

China will probably respond to you in other ways, too, just as a reminder that they can. We expect to see enhanced bullying of Taiwan (because the Chinese think Taiwan matters to you), more military shows of force and obstacles for US military initiatives. China may even pressure Kim Jong Un to embarrass you and your negotiating team (they know you blamed them for a stall in denuclearization negotiations this spring). As North Korea's most important trading partner, they have leverage.

Because of the massive costs of a direct military confrontation with China -- and because you didn't use military force against North Korea -- the Chinese probably think your risk appetite for a direct military confrontation in the South China Sea, for example, is low even if you conduct "freedom of navigation" exercises.

The Chinese probably assess that you like to have good meetings with other heads of state. Your record on tough face-to-face conversations with rival and enemy powers is thin (the Helsinki and Singapore Summits, as well as your trip to China last year, are sparse on direct confrontation).

They probably assess that you'll want to have a good meeting with President Xi at the G-20 in November, especially because you've called him a "friend." While they don't doubt your conviction on trade-related issues, based on your willingness to hit them with tariffs, they probably don't think that you'll move ahead with sanctioning Chinese officials ahead of your meeting with Xi -- either for human rights abuses or election interference -- because you don't want to push the envelope too much ahead of your bilateral meeting. A decision to levy sanctions on China would probably change at least part of their calculus.

Russia: Lazy Boys

Putin's intelligence is either increasingly incompetent or getting lazy. Russia's military intelligence agency (GRU) has penetrated some of the world's most sensitive systems -- from our elections to nuclear power plants, Americans' homes, international institutions, and more -- but their fingerprints are increasingly hiding in plain sight.

GRU agents were caught red-handed during an operation in the Netherlands, which isn't surprising. They weren't exactly working hard to conceal their activities. They traveled on Russian diplomatic passports, for starters (not exactly deep cover, as many Russian diplomats engage in espionage) while on a sensitive mission to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Russia has highly advanced covert capabilities -- as we saw, their operation to interfere in our elections went undetected for some time. This time, it didn't try very hard to cover its agents' tracks or maintain its operational security while deployed.

Nor did the GRU go to great lengths to conceal its agents' movements and activities surrounding the chemical weapons attack in the UK against a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal. The perpetrators of the Skripal attack had poorly disguised cover stories and documentation.

Other reporting now shows that hundreds of GRU agents may have actually listed GRU buildings on their vehicle registration, effectively outing them as intelligence agents.

We know that Russia has the capability to launch highly covert, multipronged operations, so we are analyzing why Russia isn't trying harder to conceal its operations or the identities of its operatives during high-stakes missions.

The Russians have either gotten lazy (in his second run as President, Vladimir Putin may feel so empowered he just doesn't think he has to try that hard, leading to operational sloppiness). Or, Russian intelligence is a dimming bulb, incapable of taking the most basic steps to maintain cover. The dimming bulb assessment is less plausible, based on our analysis of Putin's penchant for relying on the GRU for sensitive operations and likely resourcing it with both the funds and personnel needed to keep Russian intelligence sharp and active.

It's more likely that Putin just doesn't care as much if his agents get caught because he doesn't fear the repercussions. We assess that he's OK digesting any costs associated with being outed and punished, whether punishment comes in the form of DOJ indictments, public condemnations, or diplomatic expulsions.

After the UK's recent exposure of Russian cyberattacks and concomitant announcement that the UK is looking into additional sanctions -- the ruble did suffer against the dollar. Targeted sanctions may be the one way to really get Putin's attention. Until he fears the costs of acting out, covertly or overtly, we do not expect him to try much harder to conceal his efforts.

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