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May 25, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

John Rood leads candidates for Pentagon policy chief
John Rood, a veteran national security policymaker, has emerged as the leading candidate of Defense Secretary James Mattis to be the next undersecretary of defense for policy, the key policymaking post at the Pentagon, according to U.S. defense officials.

Mr. Rood, a missile defense and arms proliferation specialist, was acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during the George W. Bush administration and worked as a defense aide to Sen. Jon Kyl for four years.

Earlier positions have included work at the Pentagon, CIA and National Security Council staff. Since leaving government, Mr. Rood was employed by defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

Another official in the undersecretary of defense for policy office is Rob Soofer, who moved to the Pentagon from the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he worked as a specialist on nuclear weapons affairs.

The appointment of Mr. Rood, expected to be formally announced soon, comes amid continuing political wrangling between the White House and Pentagon over senior defense nominee picks.

A senior Pentagon official said Mr. Rood recently interviewed with Mr. Mattis and is a leading candidate. A final decision on the choice for the undersecretary slot has not been made however, the official said.

Mr. Mattis upset conservatives in Congress and the Trump administration when he initially sought to appoint former diplomat Anne Patterson to the policy undersecretary post. Ms. Patterson was a key figure in the Obama administration’s controversial backing of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt while U.S. ambassador there.

According to one administration official, about 30 of Mr. Mattis’ picks have been rejected by the White House since January.

The White House announced in March that Boeing Vice President Pat Shanahan will be the deputy secretary of defense. Mr. Mattis, who has said he wants to keep the Pentagon from becoming embroiled in Washington political battles, has upset conservatives by seeking to appoint Democrats or liberal Republicans to senior positions.

For example, the retired four-star general is said to be looking for numerous appointees from members of the Democrat-leaning Center for New American Security, including Michele Flournoy, a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton for president, to be deputy secretary of defense. Ms. Flournoy was undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration.

Two service secretary nominees, Philip Bilden to head the Navy and Vincent Viola for Army, withdrew from contention over financial issues.

Russia’s increasing expansion into the Arctic is prompting the U.S. government to step up its presence there, and building more icebreaking ships will be a key step.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing the Coast Guard, wants President Trump to adopt a more cost-effective production scheme for building heavy icebreakers.

In a letter to the president May 18, Mr. Hunter urged the administration to direct the Navy and Coast Guard to join forces in building heavy icebreakers in bulk rather than incremental single purchases, each costing around $1 billion.

“With the Navy’s help, in both the short and long term, the Coast Guard will be better-positioned to bring online more ships in even shorter time,” said Mr. Hunter, adding that the cooperation would save the government and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Until more icebreakers are built, the Coast Guard should lease vessels to fill the gap, he stated, adding that Russia is operating 40 such ships with more being designed and built.

Russia has been expanding militarily in the Arctic with the recent deployment of an arctic brigade as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push to control all territory and waters near Russia.

“We are both well aware that until we deploy these vessels in the Arctic, Russia will continue to hold its advantage and outpace the U.S. to the detriment of U.S. national security and commercial and research interest,” Mr. Hunter said.

Mr. Trump raised the need for icebreakers in a speech to the Coast Guard Academy on May 17.

“Out of the five branches of our armed services, it’s only the Coast Guard that has the power to break through 21 feet of rock-solid arctic ice, right?” he said.

“And I’m proud to say that under my administration, as you just heard, we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years,” he added. “We’re going to build many of them. We need them. We need them.”

North Korean defectors who remain in contact with people inside the reclusive communist state say there are growing signs of opposition to the Kim Jong-un regime.

Suzanne Scholte, a human rights activist who specializes in North Korean affairs, said three recent events highlight the internal discord.

Ms. Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, hosted a group of visiting North Korean defectors last month. The defectors provided details of the situation inside North Korea.

In January, an incident aboard a train to Pyongyang involved police who attempted to throw off a mother and her child for not carrying official papers. The police were confronted when passengers on the train rose up and opposed the ejection.

In an incident in Pyongyang in March, state security police attempted to prevent an elderly vendor from selling goods in a street market, and the police were blocked by other vendors and onlookers from shutting down the vendor. In April, three families seeking to flee North Korea overpowered guards along the border with China.

Additionally, anti-Kim graffiti has been reported appearing on walls in several cities.

The regime continues to crack down on the population with reports of stepped-up detentions in prison labor camps, she said.

At a North Korean factory south of the capital of Pyongyang, unofficial films were being shown. When authorities found out, a major security crackdown was ordered resulting in the purging of some 80 people.

“There are rumblings of opposition,” said Ms. Schulte, who described the incidents as “increasing pushback from the people of North Korea that would have never been heard of in the past.”

Broadcasts of Free North Korea Radio, operated by North Korean defectors in South Korea, also have been penetrating the tight information controls in the north.

The regime is facing an increase in defections from members of the ruling elite, with 25 to 30 senior-level officials fleeing the country.

Ms. Schulte believes President Trump could help unseat the Kim regime if he were to make a public message of support for the repressed North Korean people.

“The conditions have not improved,” Ms. Schulte said. “The human rights conditions are appalling. For the Trump administration, sending a message showing compassion for the plight of the North Korean people would be powerful.”

The Trump administration is considering imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea aimed at cutting off foreign banking connections that are used by the regime through North Korean front companies to gain needed hard currency.

Global electronic communications could be disrupted this week as the result of a recent large-scale solar eruption, according to sun watchers.

High-speed charged particles from the eruption on the sun are expected to create a solar radiation storm that could disrupt GPS navigational signals and radio communications. The storm is also likely to produce an eye-opening aurora near the poles. According to solar weatherwoman Tamitha Skov, who first disclosed the storm, the solar eruption was detected at the center of the sun on Tuesday and is directed toward Earth.

The effects of the storm are expected to begin reaching the planet Saturday, she said in a tweet.

A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center confirmed that a “coronal mass eruption” — less powerful than a solar flare — is on the way but is “slow and weak.” The center does not expect major disruptions.

Major solar storms are capable of causing significant disruptions of global communications and, in some cases, disrupting electrical power grids.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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