North Korea, Jamal Khashoggi, Baba Ram Dass: Your Monday Briefing

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Good morning.

It’s a quiet start to the holiday week. We’re covering the threat of a North Korean weapons test, sentences in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the death of a New Age enlightenment figure. We’d also like to wish a happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate.

Pyongyang has promised a “Christmas gift” to the U.S. if no progress is made on lifting sanctions, though American officials have played down the threat of an intercontinental ballistic missile test. Similar trials two years ago prompted President Trump to suggest that “fire and fury,” and perhaps a war, could result.

A missile test would be a setback for Mr. Trump’s diplomatic strategy; he has often cited the lack of such tests as a sign that his person-to-person talks with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, are working.

Background: In the 18 months after Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim first met in Singapore, North Korea has bolstered its arsenal of missiles and its stockpile of bomb-ready nuclear material.

What’s next: Officials say that if the North resumes its missile tests, the Trump administration would turn to allies and lobby the United Nations Security Council for tightened sanctions — a strategy that has been tried for two decades.

ImageEmilian Gebrev, an arms manufacturer from Bulgaria, survived two poisoning attacks that were eventually linked to a Russian hit squad.
Credit…Nikolay Doychinov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For years, members of a secret team, Unit 29155, operated in Europe unbeknown to Western security officials. Among other operations, it is said to have carried out an assassination attempt in Britain last year against Sergei Skripal, a Russian former spy.

But the 2015 poisoning of Emilian Gebrev, an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria, helped expose the unit to Western intelligence agencies — and shed light on a campaign by the Kremlin to eliminate Moscow’s enemies abroad and to destabilize the West.

Related: Russia’s economy is sputtering, but the country has had tremendous success this year in disrupting a world order once dominated by the U.S. Our Moscow bureau chief, Andrew Higgins, examines how a country that former President Barack Obama once dismissed as a “regional power” has become such a potent force.

On a borderless internet exploding with imagery of child sexual abuse, anyone who campaigns to remove apps and websites with illicit material fights an uphill battle. That’s partly because tech companies in the U.S. and Europe have policies that can be exploited to shield criminal behavior.

One Canadian nonprofit used a computer program to force three sites offline last month. But the campaign took years, and its success is likely to remain rare.

Go deeper: Our reporter looked at the software that child protection hotlines are using to crawl the web for illegal imagery.

An international airport under construction has raised suspicions that Beijing plans to turn the Southeast Asian nation into a de facto military outpost.

A U.S. intelligence report this year raised the possibility that “Cambodia’s slide toward autocracy” under its longtime leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, “could lead to a Chinese military presence.”

Mr. Hun Sen denies that he’s letting China’s military set up in Cambodia.

Background: The project comes amid a Chinese construction boom called the “string of pearls,” which stretches across the Indian Ocean and includes Beijing’s first military base overseas, in the African nation of Djibouti.

Another angle: China said today that it would lower tariffs on goods imported from around the world starting Jan. 1, after a trade truce with the U.S.

Black people make up 8 percent of Los Angeles County’s population, but 42 percent of those who are homeless. The problem is driven in part, officials say, by the city’s history of redlining, in which majority-black neighborhoods were marked as undesirable for investment, preventing residents from obtaining home loans.

Timothy Wynn, above, went to college and worked in retail and banking, but ended up on the streets. His experiences help show why black residents are hugely overrepresented among Los Angeles’s homeless population.

Sentences in Jamal Khashoggi case: A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five men to death and three to prison over the killing of the dissident writer, the kingdom’s public prosecutor’s office said today.

Call for impeachment witnesses: Democrats renewed their demands for testimony at President Trump’s impeachment trial, after newly released emails showed that the White House had asked officials to keep quiet over the suspension of military aid to Ukraine. That request came just 90 minutes after Mr. Trump asked that country’s president to investigate Joe Biden.

Chat app as spying tool: The messaging service ToTok was one of the most downloaded social apps in the U.S. last week. It’s also a tracking tool used by the government of the United Arab Emirates, according to American officials and a Times investigation.

Afghan election results: President Ashraf Ghani was set to win a second five-year term, according to long-delayed preliminary results of the September vote. Separately, a U.S. service member was killed in Afghanistan today, bringing to 20 the number of troops who have died during combat operations this year.

69-vehicle pileup: At least 51 people were hurt in a chain reaction of crashes on a foggy interstate in Virginia.

Snapshot: Above, Boeing’s Starliner capsule landed in New Mexico on Sunday after problems shortened its first trip to space. The craft, which did not have anybody on board, is designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

In memoriam: Baba Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, helped popularize psychedelic drugs in the 1960s with a fellow Harvard academic, Timothy Leary. He later found spiritual inspiration in India and wrote more than a dozen books, including the 1971 best seller “Be Here Now.” He died on Sunday at 88.

N.F.L. results: Michael Thomas, the Saints receiver, broke a 17-year record for most catches in a season. Here’s what we else learned in Week 16.

Who is this?: Recognizability matters, to politicians and celebrities alike. See how many people you can identify based only on a photograph.

Box office decline: Movie ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada will total about $11.45 billion this year, a 4 percent decrease from 2018.

Metropolitan Diary: In this week’s column, an exasperated subway train operator, an overheard conversation in Midtown and more reader tales from New York City.

What we’re listening to: The Fairfield Four’s 1992 a cappella rendition of “Last Month of the Year,” which was mentioned in a CBC radio program about the Christmas music of black America. “I could listen to this song all day,” tweeted our climate reporter Christopher Flavelle.

Cook: Upgrade your holiday dessert game with golden ginger cake.

Watch: Nearly two decades after the original ended, “Party of Five” returns with a new premise about family separation.

Read: The “Cats” trailer sent shock waves through the internet. Now that they’ve seen the big-screen adaptation, critics’ claws are out.

Smarter Living: Choosing gifts that children will connect with can take some brainstorming. We have ideas — including real tools, not simplified child versions — that get them to tinker.

Journalists have long used digital security measures — encrypted communications and storage — when handling sensitive information.

But for several years, we’ve had a set of tools for readers to anonymously submit information that might be of interest to The Times.

The tools — WhatsApp, Signal, SecureDrop and encrypted email — are listed on our tips page, which outlines each method’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Users can then download the appropriate software and use it to transmit tips. Each is rigorously vetted.

What makes a good tip? This is our guidance:

“Documentation or evidence is essential. Speculating or having a hunch does not rise to the level of a tip. A good news tip should articulate a clear and understandable issue or problem with real-world consequences. Be specific. Finally, a news tip should be newsworthy. While we agree it is unfair that your neighbor is stealing cable, we would not write a story about it.”

That’s it for this briefing. Happy Festivus!

See you next time.

— Chris

Thank you
Mark Josephson and Raillan Brooks provided the break from the news. Today’s Back Story is drawn from an article by Stephen Hiltner in our “Understanding The Times” series. You can reach the team at

• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Today’s episode is a look at the year in sound.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Number of nights of Hanukkah (five letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• Noah Weiland, the writer of our Impeachment Briefing newsletter, shared how he approaches one of the biggest stories in recent memory: “Think of each day’s news narrowly, like an episode of television in a monthslong series.”

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