North Korean missile food fight

With help from Daniel Lippman

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Ever been caught between two people fighting? NatSec Daily knows the feeling.

Last week, MIT’s THEODORE POSTOL argued that North Korea’s Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile exists because Russia handed over technology from its own Topol designs to Pyongyang, which if true would reveal a stunning and unprecedented level of partnership. “This particular ICBM could not possibly have come into the hands of the North Koreans without the full support and cooperation of the Russian government,” he wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The piece immediately drew criticism. The Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ JEFFREY LEWIS detailed to NatSec Daily what he said were the inaccuracies: “The missiles are similar in size but not the same. The Hwasong-18 first stage is longer and the third stage [section] is probably totally different. The guidance system is not Russian, it may be Chinese. Then what Postol calls a decoy canister is the second stage.”

NatSec Daily asked Postol to respond to Lewis’ criticisms, and he was none too pleased. He replied via email not only to Alex, but also to Lewis, CSIS Korea chair VICTOR CHA (who boosted Postol’s findings and an NBC report on it) and the New York Times’ DAVID SANGER. Postol asserted that Lewis “misrepresented himself to the press on numerous occasions as a technical expert on missiles” — though he’s been immensely helpful to us and others in the press on technical matters — and provided no evidence to counter the original piece.

(You can read the whole email for yourself as Lewis posted it on X.)

Then it got personal. “I am genuinely sorry for how embarrassing this will prove for you,” Lewis replied, leading Postol to shoot back: “you seem to have no technical details to support your claims.” Lewis then said that he and his colleagues were drafting such a rebuttal. “You can wait until then,” he wrote.

That analysis by Lewis and seven colleagues came out Sunday. It’s wonky — all of this is — but in summary the group concludes that, while there are some similarities, all the available evidence “exclude[s] the possibility that Russia transferred a complete ICBM system.”

We’re not missile experts here at NatSec Daily, so we’ll leave others to address the most technical details. So far, we’ve seen more in support of Lewis et al. than Postol.

“The HS-18 is not a Russian ICBM, nor is it ‘nearly identical’ to one. It also is highly unlikely that Russia deliberately provided substantial ICBM technology. Most probably, North Korea developed the HS-18 on its own,” VANN VAN DIEPEN, formerly a senior nonproliferation official at the State Department, wrote in 38 North on Monday. He adds that while Pyongyang’s weapon does look like Russian Topols, it “also resembles the U.S. Minuteman-III.”

(Some experts recalled that Postol coauthored a paper questioning Syria’s use of chemical weapons in the deadly 2017 attack on Khan Sheikhoun. He told us “I am absolutely sure that my analysis of that matter is correct,” and suggested after that Syrian rebels, not BASHAR AL-ASSAD’s government, were responsible for the 2013 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. Today, on the 10-year anniversary of that strike, Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN said “the Assad regime launched rockets carrying the deadly nerve agent sarin into the Ghouta district of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people.”)

The back and forth between Lewis and Postol — which includes more emails than the ones Lewis screenshotted on X — turned personal and rancorous. But there is some common ground between the two camps. Both sides agree that Russia (and China) has helped North Korea advance its nuclear program. KIM JONG UN in July showed off his missiles to Russian Defense Minister SERGEI SHOIGU, an indicator of the countries’ relationship.

But the how matters a lot, and there’s a wide gap between “Moscow has been helpful” and “the Kremlin gave North Korea its blueprints.”

The Inbox

RUSSIA ON THOSE F-16s FOR UKRAINE: While Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY applauds Denmark and the Netherlands for pledging to send the first F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv, Russian officials warned that the move will only escalate the war.

“By hiding behind a premise that Ukraine itself must determine the conditions for peace, Denmark seeks with its actions and words to leave Ukraine with no other choice but to continue the military confrontation with Russia,” Russian ambassador Vladimir Barbin said in a statement cited by state media, per Reuters’ JACOB GRONHOLT-PEDERSEN and PAVEL POLITYUK.

For months, Russia has warned that providing Ukraine with jets, which Zelenskyy has been long been asking for, would escalate the fighting. Denmark plans to deliver the first six jets to Ukraine around the New Year, promising to send a total of 19 jets over the next two years.

The Netherlands has 42 jets available but hasn’t decided on how many will be donated. Zelenskyy tweeted on Sunday that the entire Dutch supply would be transferred to Ukraine, but a Netherlands official told our own PAUL McLEARY that “some are only for training. We still use some F-16s until next year. So the total we can provide will be less than 42.”

CHINA’S SCHOOL IN TANZANIA: China has set up a school in Tanzania to teach African leaders about its governance model, according to Axios’ BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN. It is the latest indicator that China is attempting to export its vision of authoritarian rule around the world and challenge Western ideas of democracy.

The Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Dar es Salaam opened in partnership with the governments of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola. It has been described by Chinese officials as a way to teach African leaders about economic development policies and promote African economic growth.

But as Allen-Ebrahimian, who visited the school, writes, “economics takes a back seat to political training. Chinese teachers sent from Beijing train African leaders that the ruling party should sit above the government and the courts and that fierce discipline within the party can ensure adherence to party ideology.”

China’s historical rise from impoverished nation to superpower has long inspired African leaders, with many seeing China as an ideal model for development.

Despite some recent declines, more than 50 percent of Africans view China as a positive influence on their country’s future, according to data from Afrobarometer analyzed by NatSec Daily. Those favorable ratings are just higher than the United States’ numbers on the continent and speak to China’s staying power in Africa.

SLOW AND STEADY: India’s lunar lander is working “perfectly” as it prepares for touchdown this week, the head of India’s space agency said today — speaking after Russia crashed its spacecraft into the moon over the weekend.

The Chandrayaan-3 lander is scheduled to land on the moon’s surface on Wednesday, Indian Space Research Organization Chair S. SOMANATH said in a statement. Now, experts say New Delhi has a huge opportunity to cement its space prowess, Matt reports.

“It raises the stakes of success. India has always been viewed by the world as a junior spacefaring state,” said PETER GARRETSON, a senior fellow in defense studies at the American Foreign Policy Council and former Defense Department official. “If India can succeed where Russia has failed, it signals a new pecking order in space.”

LOOK WHO SHOWED UP: In his first video since leading a revolt against VLADIMIR PUTIN, Wagner Group chief YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN spoke to camera from the Sahel. Per the Wall Street Journal’s YAROSLAV TROFIMOV, Prigozhin said “he is making Russia great again in Africa and doesn’t mind the 50 degree (centigrade) heat.”

Perhaps the heat in West Africa is better to the different heat the mercenary leader might face in Russia or Belarus.

IT’S MONDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @mattberg33.

While you’re at it, follow the rest of POLITICO’s national security team: @nahaltoosi, @PhelimKine, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmcleary, @leehudson, @magmill95, @johnnysaks130, @ErinBanco, @reporterjoe, @JGedeon1 and @ebazaileimil.


VIVEK UNDER ATTACK: As we predicted Friday, GOP presidential candidate VIVEK RAMASWAMY’s comments last week about not giving Israel special treatment have already landed him in hot water.

The latest attack comes from fellow candidate NIKKI HALEY, who said in a statement today that the tech entrepreneur is “completely wrong to call for ending America’s special bond with Israel. Support for Israel is both the morally right and strategically smart thing to do.” If elected president, “I will never abandon Israel.”

In a statement to NatSec Daily, Ramaswamy campaign spokesperson TRICIA McLAUGHLIN said “we wish [Haley] well on her future in corporate America’s boardrooms.”

A lengthier criticism came from conservative radio host MARK LEVIN, delivering a five-paragraph post on X to explain why Ramaswamy’s comment was “absurd.”

“You miss the point entirely. Israel is an ally in a very dangerous part of the world. We need Israel as a counterweight to Iran, Syria, terrorist organizations, etc. You seem oblivious to America’s need to have strong and reliable allies throughout the world to help our own security needs,” he wrote.

In response to another post from Levin, Ramaswamy defended his stance and said Washington would “not leave Israel hanging out to dry — ever.” McLaughlin further clarified Ramaswamy’s view, telling us “he wants it to be more of [a] friendship than client relationship.”


NATO SUMMIT TARGETED: While some of the world’s most powerful leaders were assembling at the Vilnius NATO summit in July, two Russian hacker groups were engaging in a disinformation campaign aimed at the gathering, MAGGIE MILLER and LAURENS CERULUS report (for Pros!).

One group spread fake NATO press releases mimicking the alliance’s website, and the other posted documents about the summit’s internal security measures — claiming they were obtained from the Lithuanian government. That’s detailed in a new report from Graphika about the latest in a pulsing series of campaigns by likely Russia-linked groups to target European countries with disinformation campaigns to sow discord among the allies.

The misinformation campaign also included forged announcements that NATO was doubling its defense budget and that the alliance was considering the idea of supporting deploying Ukrainian troops to France to respond to the protests earlier in the summer.

The Complex

MILLEY ON THE MOVE: Gen. MARK MILLEY, the Joint Chiefs chair, is traveling this week to Italy, the United Kingdom, Israel and Jordan, his spokesperson told us.

Milley left Sunday for the four-nation, four-day tour during which he’ll meet with dignitaries like the Pope and King ABDULLAH II as well as counterparts. “This trip is especially important to reassure partners and allies as we’re not sure if there will be a confirmed chairman to replace General Milley on October 1,” Col. DAVE BUTLER said, alluding to the standoff between Sen. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-Ala.) and the Pentagon over military confirmations.

Butler noted that Milley will be meeting with some officials for the last time in his official capacity. It seems the chair wants to reassure allies and partners of America’s commitment to them before he retires soon.

On the Hill

FREEDOM CAUCUS AIMS AT PENTAGON: The House Freedom Caucus is placing conditions on its support for a continuing resolution to fund the government in the event Congress cannot complete the appropriations process by Sept. 30, according to our own JORDAIN CARNEY.

In a statement, the influential conservative faction of the House Republican caucus said it will not back a stopgap funding bill if it does not address “the Left’s cancerous woke policies in the Pentagon.” The conservative faction of the House Republican caucus is also calling for an end to “any blank check for Ukraine in any supplemental appropriations bill” and other policy concessions from House leadership.

The demands come as Congress must still pass 11 of the 12 spending bills needed to fund the federal government this year. House Speaker KEVIN McCARTHY has promised members he will not consider an “omnibus” spending bill and group all the various spending packages into one larger bill, but delays in passing the first batch of bills in July have increased the likelihood that a short-term resolution will be needed.

ICYMI — House Republicans are standing between Biden and his war to save Ukraine by Alex, JONATHAN LEMIRE and JENNIFER HABERKORN


NETANYAHU: ATTACKS BACKED BY IRAN: Israel’s prime minister claimed today that recent attacks on his nation’s citizens are being funded and encouraged by Iran, Reuters’ ARI RABINOVITCH reports.

“We are in the midst of a terror attack. This terror attack is encouraged, guided, funded by Iran and its satellite states,” BENJAMIN NETANYAHU said in remarks from the occupied West Bank on Monday.

Hours earlier, an Israeli woman was killed by a suspected Palestinian gunmen. Per Rabinovitch, Netanyahu vowed “to settle the score with the attackers and those who sent them, from near or far.”

Netanyahu didn’t provide clear evidence for his charge against Tehran. But his comments come as Israeli authorities still hunt a gunman who killed two Israelis in the northern West Bank on Saturday. As the Associated Press’ ISABEL DEBRE reports: “The combustible mix of armed Palestinians carrying out shooting attacks against Israelis as well as near-nightly — and often deadly — raids by the Israeli army to arrest militants has fueled the worst fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank in nearly two decades.”


WILLIAM CHOU has joined the Hudson Institute as a Japan chair fellow. He was formerly at the Ronald Reagan Institute and the Clements Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

— Former National Security Council spokesperson EMILY HORNE will be a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service this fall.

TAL NAIM started today as the spokesperson for Israel’s embassy in the U.S., taking over for ELAD STROHMAYER, whose last day was Friday.

JOSHUA BARON has been detailed to the White House to be a director for technology and national security at the NSC. He most recently was program manager at DARPA.

MARY BETH LONG, a former assistant defense secretary during the GEORGE W. BUSH administration, was nominated to the board of directors of dronemaker AeroVironment.

GUY MENTEL is now senior foreign policy adviser to the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. He previously was president and chief legal officer at Global Americans.

REGGIE ROBINSON was named the senior vice president for government relations at BAE Systems. Robinson has been at the company since 2014, serving last as vice president for the executive branch and international government relations.

LIZ TIMMONS has been promoted to press secretary for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. She most recently was deputy press secretary.

What to Read

RONAN FARROW, The New Yorker: ELON MUSK’s shadow rule

Human Rights Watch: “They fired on us like rain”

International Crisis Group: Iran’s Khuzestan: thirst and turmoil

Tomorrow Today

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1 p.m.: Israel-Lebanon border tensions: Hezbollah provocation, IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) response, and the potential for conflict

The Government Executive Media Group, 2 p.m.: A discussion on “AI in action” and how federal agencies can power mission readiness

The Korea Society, 8 p.m.: The South Korea nuclear debate

Thanks to our editor, Heidi Vogt, about whom we always send nasty emails.

We also thank our producer, Gregory Svirnovskiy, about whom we only say nice things in public and private.

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