President Biden’s Friday summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in will focus on North Korea and may end months of speculation about how Biden hopes to defang a nuclear threat his four predecessors failed to blunt four different ways.
The White House has shrouded key aspects of its new course in ambiguity, declining to spell out precise diplomatic tactics, the state of any recent private communications with Pyongyang, or whether it would envision a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War.
“At this juncture, it’s really not in our interest to preview or comment on specific issues like an end-of-war declaration in hopes of spurring dialogue,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday on the condition of anonymity.
One of the more tantalizing questions is just what the administration means when it says it’ll use Donald Trump’s joint statement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at their historic June 2018 summit as a foundation for future policy.
“Our efforts will build on Singapore and other agreements made by previous administrations,” Biden’s top aide on North Korea, the National Security Council’s Kurt Campbell, told the Yonhap News Agency in an interview out Wednesday.
That statement reads, in part, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Pressed for additional details about how the Singapore statement would factor into Biden’s approach, the anonymous official cited above didn’t bite.
The new U.S. administration has said it will neither adopt Trump’s “grand bargain” quest for one all-encompassing deal with North Korea nor Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” — in other words, isolation, new sanctions, wait for results.
As one anonymous official more colorfully put it to my colleagues John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima in late April:
“’If the Trump administration was everything for everything, Obama was nothing for nothing,’ the official said. ‘This is something in the middle.’”
In the interview out yesterday, Campbell said Biden’s “policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK to make practical progress.”
John and Ellen had reported the Biden administration had settled on “a phased approach that exchanges partial sanctions relief for partial denuclearization” by North Korea.
I asked the anonymous official whether that meant Biden would offer North Korea limited sanctions relief as a reward, or incentive, for steps to dismantle its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“On the specifics associated with the tactics and our approach, one of the things that we want to do on Friday is to engage with South Korean friends on the way forward,” the official replied. “We’ve tried to design it to be flexible and, as I’ve indicated, calibrated more generally. We understand where previous efforts in the past have had difficulties.”
One area in which the Biden team has had difficulties is settling on language to define success — since Jan. 20, they’ve used “denuclearizing North Korea” and “denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula” pretty much interchangeably.
“Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Campbell told Yonhap.
But the two phrasings don’t mean the same thing, as I wrote back in March.
The United States pulled its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korean soil in 1991. Seoul does not have nuclear weapons.
As my colleague Simon Denyer noted two years ago, the question is “whether that includes a demand for U.S. troops to leave South Korea and pull nuclear-armed American bombers and submarines out of the surrounding region.”
I asked the anonymous official to define denuclearizing the peninsula.
“Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is pretty clear and it states clearly what we’re attempting on the overall geography of the Korean peninsula — a nuclear-free environment,” the official said. Asked what that meant for the status of nuclear-capable U.S. forces, the White House declined to elaborate on the record.
The state of U.S.-North Korea communications is also unclear.
Well, the diplomatic contacts, anyway.
As John and Ellen noted: “In March, the regime fired two short-range missiles during Blinken’s first trip to the Asia-Pacific and days later shot two ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan.”
That was around the time Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the United States had reached out multiple times to North Korea for over a year, including in mid-February, but had not heard back.
Campbell declined to confirm the Biden administration had reached out again after the completion of its review of its North Korea options.
“It is important to leave space for private diplomatic exchanges to stay private,” he told Yonhap. “Accordingly, we’re not going to start a rhythm of sharing whenever we do or do not reach out to the DPRK or what the response is or is not.”
Moon’s message to Biden will be to reach out and reach out now.
“The most important starting point for both governments is to have the will for dialogue and to sit down face to face at an early date,” he told the New York Times in a late-April interview.
Moon wasn’t especially kind to Trump, saying “he beat around the bush and failed to pull it through,” but urged the United States not to dump the Singapore agreement.
“I believe that if we build on what President Trump has left, we will see this effort come to fruition under Biden’s leadership,” he said.
What’s happening now
There are few signs of an “imminent” cease-fire as Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rockets continue. “The battle between Israel and Hamas stretched into an 11th day as both sides kept up attacks on each other’s territory amid growing reports that a cease-fire agreement was within reach, possibly by Friday,” Steve Hendrix and Michael Miller report. “Diplomats from the region and Europe kicked their peacemaking efforts into a higher gear with meetings reported in Gaza, Qatar and Jerusalem. Foreign ministers from Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia arrived with messages of support for Israel but endorsements of the burgeoning efforts to pause the violence. Citing an Egyptian security source, Reuters reported that the sides had agreed in principle to a cease-fire after help from mediators, although the details were still being negotiated.
“‘Ceasefire is likely taking place soon, but this highly dependent on how much Israeli occupation respects Palestinians’ rights,’ a spokesman for Hamas told The Post in a text message Thursday. ... Political leaders acknowledged that Israel is feeling intensifying pressure over a death toll that now numbers 230 Gazans, leading some sources to predict that Israel would agree to a pause perhaps Friday. ... Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to convene a meeting of the security cabinet Thursday night, which would have to approve a cease-fire agreement, according to Israeli media reports.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will introduce a resolution of disapproval on $735 million U.S. arms sale to Israel, scoops our colleague Jackie Alemany. “The resolution aims to halt the planned sale to Israel by the Biden administration of JDAMs, or Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and Small Diameter Bombs, as the worst hostilities in years continue between Israel and Hamas. The resolution needs only a simple majority to pass the Senate; but if it were to be vetoed by Biden, it would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to take effect. ‘At a moment when U.S.-made bombs are devastating Gaza, and killing women and children, we cannot simply let another huge arms sale go through without even a congressional debate,’ Sanders said in a statement to The Post.”
House Democrats are already in disarray over the arms sale, with some taking their complaints to the administration. “Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are expected to summon a senior Biden administration official to a high-stakes meeting as soon as Thursday to discuss [the pending sale],” Karoun Demirjian reports. "The internal feud over whether to block the sale is unlikely to yield short-term results, as a majority of both the House and Senate would have to register a formal objection by Friday to stop the deal in its tracks. But it has exposed fissures in the Democratic Party that may lead to longer-term changes, as its members find themselves in uncharted territory: arguing about whether the United States should put new limits on its financial relationship with Israel.”
“Biden's unusually blunt demand Wednesday that Israel de-escalate its military attack on Gaza is creating a rare rift between the two countries and dismaying some of Israel's supporters in the United States,” Anne Gearan and Sean Sullivan report. “Biden has no direct authority to impose a cease-fire on Israel, but the stern White House message was unmistakable: If Netanyahu carries the conflict much further, he risks losing significant backing in Washington.”
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Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “Policing deal remains out of reach on Capitol Hill as the anniversary of George Floyd’s death approaches,” by Mike DeBonis: “In a sprawling speech to Congress last month laying out dozens of proposals, Biden set one specific deadline for lawmakers: to deliver a long-discussed overhaul of police practices meant to stem the killings of Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement officers. ... That deadline — May 25 — is now set to come and go without action. Although talks continue productively, according to participants, no deal is in immediate sight and the House is leaving Washington on Friday for a three-week break."
- “What are Americans making for dinner? Reservations,” by Laura Reiley and Andrew Van Dam: “With nearly half of all Americans at least partially vaccinated and 100 percent of Americans tired of their own cooking, restaurant traffic is rocketing back. Restaurant reservations were up 46 percent in April compared with April 2019, according to the review site Yelp (and up 23,000 percent compared with April 2020 when most Americans began staying at home during the pandemic). Yelp’s competitor OpenTable paints a similarly rosy picture. In some states, restaurant traffic has blown by pre-pandemic levels, prompting industry experts to draw parallels between now and the Roaring ‘20s.”
… and beyond
- “Gig workers inch toward right to unionize in New York – but there’s a catch,” by the City’s Josefa Velasquez and Claudia Irizarry Aponte: “State lawmakers, labor unions and tech companies are nearing a deal to introduce legislation that would grant gig-economy workers in New York the right to join a union — but stop short of reclassifying them as employees. ... While conversations over what would be included in the bill and other details are ongoing, several people familiar with the process told THE CITY that the measure would allow app-based workers to vote to form unions that would engage in ‘sectoral bargaining.’ That means union representatives would be able to negotiate on behalf of an entire industry’s workers regardless of what companies those people work for.”
- “Inside Trump’s push to oust his own FBI chief,” by Politico’s Daniel Lippman: “Trump sought to oust FBI Director Christopher Wray last spring and replace him with counterintelligence head William Evanina, according to three former Trump officials familiar with the episode. Under the plan, the former officials said, Kash Patel — a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and a fierce critic of the Russia probe — would have become the bureau’s deputy director. Previously unreported details of the proposal reveal just how seriously the former president took his grievances against the intelligence and law enforcement establishment."
The Biden agenda
The Biden administration has decided to stop detaining immigrants in a pair of county jails facing federal investigation in Georgia and Massachusetts.
- “DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to immediately terminate its contract with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts and to transfer the few remaining detainees elsewhere, according to documents provided to The Post,” Maria Sacchetti reports.
Jobless claims set a new pandemic low as GOP-led states move to slash unemployment benefits.
- “Some 444,000 Americans filed first-time unemployment claims last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, chalking up another pandemic low as the labor market continues to recover and a cluster of state lawmakers threaten to slash benefits,” Taylor Telford reports. “That’s down 34,000 from the previous week’s upwardly revised level, marking the third consecutive weekly decline in initial unemployment claims. Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, Michigan and Alabama saw some of the biggest drop-offs in filings. New Jersey, Washington and Oklahoma were among the only states with spikes in claims greater than 1,000.”
… but the Biden administration is finding it has few options.
- “The Biden administration has scrambled to devise a way to keep paying heightened unemployment benefits to an estimated 3.6 million Americans who stand to lose them soon in Republican-led states, but Labor Department officials have come to believe that the law does not allow them to do so,” Tony Romm and Eli Rosenberg report. “With a federal intervention now unlikely, jobless Americans in at least 22 states including Arizona, Ohio and Texas are set to see their payments fall by $300 each week — or be wiped out entirely — as GOP governors try to force people back to work in response to a potential national labor shortage.”
- “Federal officials have been reviewing whether they could mandate that states continue paying their unemployed workers, preserving a series of coronavirus stimulus programs dating to last spring. That includes Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides weekly aid to self-employed workers and others who labor on behalf of gig economy companies such as Uber. But Labor Department officials have come to believe that the government cannot legally force states to administer these benefits.”
- “Even if the Labor Department had the authority, the agency probably would face significant legal and logistical hurdles in distributing the aid swiftly,” our colleagues write. “The federal government most likely cannot erect a system to review unemployment claims and dole out weekly sums before the stimulus aid is set to expire in early September — a complex task involving a web of technology and personnel that has flummoxed many state agencies despite decades of experience.”
Trump’s pick for IRS chief now has to implement Biden’s economic agenda.
- “As a Beverly Hills tax attorney, Charles P. Rettig defended a venture capitalist whom the Internal Revenue Service accused of using sham methods to escape taxes on overseas operations. He represented the heirs of a millionaire defense contractor when the IRS came for part of their inheritance, and was hired by a billionaire who admitted to hiding profits in offshore accounts,” Jeff Stein reports. “Rettig now finds himself poised to be a crucial player on the opposite side of these fights.”
- “The Biden administration is slated to depend on Rettig to lead a major escalation of tax hikes and enforcement on the rich. Democrats are also relying on Rettig to implement much of their economic program through the creation of new tax credits, for example. The awkward arrangement has led senior Biden administration officials and key congressional Democrats to wonder if Rettig is the right person for the job.”
The future of the GOP
GaetzGate continues: A grand jury subpoena lists a previously unknown person in the probe into Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz.
- “A new name has surfaced tied to the scandal engulfing Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz: Joe Ellicott, a close friend and former employee of the elected tax collector who pleaded guilty to a host of crimes Monday,” Politico’s Marc Caputo reports.
- “Nicknamed ‘Big Joe,’ Ellicott was listed in a federal grand jury subpoena sent to a different individual. ... The subpoena also lists Gaetz and two friends of his, including former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors as they examine whether the congressman had sex with a 17-year-old and paid her for it in 2017.”
- “The Dec. 28, 2020 subpoena states that the grand jury is investigating alleged crimes ‘involving commercial sex acts with adult and minor women, as well as obstruction of justice’ and seeks any communications, documents, recordings and payments the individual had with Ellicott, Gaetz and Greenberg from January 2016 until now.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) this morning fast-tracked the House’s bipartisan January 6th Commission bill to the Senate calendar.
From C-SPAN’s Craig Caplan:
- The 35 Republicans include the 10 who also voted to impeach Trump for inciting the riot, Donna Cassata and Kevin Uhrmacher report. That group includes Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio), Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), John Katko (N.Y.), and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.).
- Democrats in the Senate need 10 Republicans to vote with them and buck Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who yesterday said he doesn’t support the commission.
Already, however, some Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump are voicing their opposition to the commission:
Quote of the day
“We have people scaling the Capitol, hitting the Capitol Police with lead pipes across the head, and we can’t get bipartisanship,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said on the House floor in a fiery speech. “What else has to happen in this country?” he continued. “This is a slap in the face to every rank-and-file cop in the United States.”
Hot on the left
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill won’t offer tenure to Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the New York Times’ 1916 Project, after wave of conservative criticism. “The university had announced in April that Hannah-Jones, who received her master’s degree there in 2003, would become the newest Knight Chair — a professorship endowed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — that has historically been a tenured position at the university," the 19th’s Mariel Padilla reports. "Hannah-Jones sparked ire from conservative leaders, including Trump, after she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which was published in 2019 and marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first known enslaved Africans. ... The university, board of trustees and the legislature have been receiving letters and phone calls in support and opposition since the hire was announced. ... The board’s ultimate decision to offer Hannah-Jones a five-year contract stunned faculty. More than two dozen faculty members signed a letter that demanded ‘explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels’ and called for her tenure."
The news sparked outrage among journalists too:
Hot on the right
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) family got access to rapid coronavirus testing until at least April, even after he went under fire for it, the Times’s J. David Goodman reports. “On April 3, the day before Easter, one of Mr. Cuomo’s daughters, Mariah Kennedy Cuomo, and her boyfriend, Tellef Lundevall, were tested at a state-run site in Albany, N.Y., and the samples were labeled a priority — ‘specials,’ as they were known inside the Health Department — before being rushed for processing at the state’s Wadsworth Center laboratory nearby. The samples were processed within hours. ... The couple’s preferential treatment underscored how a system meant to ensure fast test results for high-priority cases — such as those involving possible outbreaks — had been repeatedly used for Mr. Cuomo’s immediate family and other influential people.”
Today in Washington
Biden will sign the Asian American hate crimes bill into law at 2 p.m. He and Vice President Harris will deliver remarks.
In the Senate, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge will testify on Biden’s infrastructure proposals.
A Cicada’s life, visualized
Billions of cicadas are emerging after 17 years underground. They will shake up parts of the eastern United States during a few weeks and then, just as suddenly, they will die. Here’s the full experience with sound of the short but eventful adult life of a Brood X cicada.
But wait, there’s more: A fungus could turn some cicadas into sex-crazed “salt shakers of death,” Marisa Iati reports. “Yellow-white fungus grows inside the cicadas, filling their insides and pushing out against their abdomens. One by one, the rings that compose the back halves of their bodies slough off and fall to the ground. Driven by a chemical compound in the fungus — and now lacking butts and genitals — the bugs try to mate like crazy. ... Unlike other fungal pathogens, the fungus Massospora cicadina doesn’t kill the insects on which it grows. Instead, it forces the cicadas to act in ways that promote the fungus’s spread. ‘That’s what people can immediately recognize as, ‘This is a zombie, this is no longer a normal cicada, something strange is happening here,’’ said Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at West Virginia University.”
Washington is already having a … good time dealing with these critters:
Seth Meyers said Republicans' efforts to rewrite the history of the Jan. 6 attack are hard to swallow because we all saw it happen with our own eyes: