North Korea’s Academy of Defence Science Conducts a Static Hot Test of a Liquid Propelled Missile (Rocket) Engine at Sohae

The situation on the Korean peninsula is moving fast, and moving fast in the wrong direction.  I don’t quite know where to begin. With some of the old stuff, only days old mind you, or the very latest development.

Let’s start with the very latest development. North Korea has conducted a static hot test of a large liquid propellant engine (LPE) for a ballistic missile at what Pyongyang calls the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground . KCNA carried the following statement by a spokesman from the Academy of National Defence Science

A very important test took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on the afternoon of December 7, 2019.

The Academy of the National Defence Science of the DPRK made a report on the successful result of the test of great significance to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future.

The static hot test of a LPE at Sohae came on the same day CNN reported on the latest satellite imagery of the engine test stand. The imagery was provided by Planet Labs and the analysis by researchers at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies.  That imagery demonstrated renewed activity at the site, and the presence of a large (approx 10 metre length) blue shipping container (hello Nenoksa). Both, especially the shipping container, suggested that a LPE static hot test was in the works.

The North Koreans aren’t messing around. In short, it looks as if Kim Jong Un’s button just got a bit bigger.

Although the above quoted statement does not say the engine tested at Sohae was new, it does imply it. Furthermore, the test was conducted by the Academy of National Defence Science, rather than North Korea’s space agency, and that suggests it was military related. The part in the statement where it says the test “will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK” and that “once again in the near future” also implied a military related test. This sentence, in turn, implies the testing of a new (hence “changing”) engine, rather than the March 18 Revolution or Paektusan Engine a two engine cluster which forms the booster stage of the Hwasong-15 ICBM. Furthermore, the “once again” part implies we have ourselves a new LPE ICBM.

The reference to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea is also important. The 3rd plenum of the Central Committee of the 7th Congress, in April 2018, rubber stamped a decision on the suspension of long range missile and nuclear testing made higher up in the food chain. The 5th Central Committee has been convened by the Politburo for the latter part of December, where doubtless this suspension will be discussed and whatever decision has been made with regard to it announced and rubber stamped. I will say more about that in a subsequent post, so I hold my pen for now.

Hitherto most have assumed that the next ICBM North Korea would develop would be a solid fuel ICBM. That assumption may well be wrong. When Kim Jong Un visited the Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Science in August 2017 one of the interesting posters we saw depicted what was titled as the Hwasong-13 ICBM. Today’s test might be related to this.

Perhaps Pyongyang has tested a cluster of March 18 Revolution engines. It is possible, moreover, that this was a reliability test of the March 18 Revolution engine. The KCNA statement, at least thus far, is not accompanied by imagery. Until we see images of the actual test we cannot be certain, but so far as I can see the statement from the Academy of National Defence Science suggests a new engine.

That leads to the question as to why North Korea would build a new liquid engine propelled ICBM if it already has one. One possibility is that a new engine would provide more thrust, for why develop a new engine with the same or less thrust, which in turn would lead to an ICBM with greater throw weight. The two cluster configuration for the Hwasong-15 ICBM is estimated to have 80 tonnes of thrust. North Korea’s September 2017 hydrogen bomb test was estimated to have a yield of about 250kt of TNT (I think a bit more), which is a quarter of a megatonne. An ICBM powered by higher thrust engines with a larger throw weight than the Hwasong-15 ICBM could mean North Korea is developing a hydrogen bomb in the megatonne class, an unambiguous city busting weapon. The reentry vehicle of the Hwasong-15 has a large volume so I doubt a new LPE ICBM would be related to penetration aids for overcoming ballistic missile defence. That would also apply to a MIRV capability, however one of the interesting things about North Korea’s testing of shorter range missiles this year has been manoeuvrable warheads. A MaRV ICBM is also a possibility, which would put paid to all those (false) claims North Korea doesn’t have a working RV for an ICBM.

The engine test stand at Sohae played an important role at the Singapore summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. At that summit an agreement was reached, reportedly, that was not reflected in the summit communique. Pyongyang pledged to dismantle the engine test stand at Sohae in exchange for a declaration ending the Korean war, not to be confused with a formal peace treaty, and the suspension of US-South Korea military exercises. Up to that point North Korea had suspended long range missile testing and closed, not collapsed, the tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

Not long thereafter North Korea stopped its disablement activities at Sohae, especially after working level talks in Pyongyang led by Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, did not result in progress on an end of war declaration. North Korea accused Washington of demanding, up front, the complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme before taking any corresponding action of interest to Pyongyang.  North Korea at this stage of the diplomacy had made substantial progress toward dismantlement of the test stand at Sohae. Subsequently the engine test stand was reassembled.

In the reports, and remarks made by analysts and commentators, this aspect to the Sohae test stand was basically airbrushed out of history. The reason for this is clear enough. There are two propaganda systems at work here. One, theirs, and the other, ours. Theirs exaggerates the disarmament actions Pyongyang has taken both before and after Singapore. My interest is not with theirs but rather ours. The proximate objective of both is to blame the other party for the collapse in the Singapore process. The idea behind this is to prepare both respective domestic populations for a rough ride in 2020 through a claim of innocence. As analysts and commentators in relatively more open and democratic societies we are under no obligation to conform to our propaganda system, as must be done in North Korea, yet we still do what is required of us. In this case, that’s airbrushing the place taken up in the diplomatic record by the Sohae engine testing facilities.

The most important near term role analysts can make toward defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis and encouraging a broader peace on the Korean peninsula is the deconstruction of our propaganda systems. Should the view North Korea has been a uniquely and singly perfidious negotiating partner take firm and widespread hold it will be very difficult to reverse a likely escalatory dynamic which could led to nuclear war and the death of millions in fire and fury unlike any seen in history.

My own view is that the Sohae test is not a type of “signalling” from Pyongyang about North Korean resolve much as this will doubtless feature in news reports and media commentary. North Korea, in the by now infamous KCNA statement promising an unmentioned “Christmas gift” for the United States, made an important statement just about universally ignored. I have discussed that statement in my previous post. Pyongyang announced that it would be taking the bomb out of the basement, now that the denuclearisation process has reached a dead end. The Sohae engine test means exactly that. It’s not “signalling.” It’s North Korea progressing its nuclear programme out in the open through the completion of whatever research and development programmes it has hitherto been conducting in the basement. The North Korean bomb is not going to be a bomb in the basement.

I will discuss the other recent developments in a separate post. That post was in the works, but the developments at Sohae required a separate, although of course related, analysis.

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North Korea’s 28 November KN-25 MLRS Test

On the 28th of November North Korea conducted the fourth flight test of the KN-25 (US designation) multiple launch rocket system. This is the super-large calibre (600mm) MLRS that I have written of previously, for example in my preceding post.

North Korea’s press agency, KCNA, released a statement after the test as it regularly does.

The volley test-fire aimed to finally examine the combat application of the super-large multiple launch rocket system proved the military and technical superiority of the weapon system and its firm reliability.

As can be seen the flight test had a robust research and development focus to it. That did not prevent the media, and the relied upon think tank experts that it uses to buttress the prevailing conclusions of the moment, from saying the test was North Korea “signalling” to the US what might entail in 2020 should Washington and Pyongyang not reach a deal at the negotiating table. To be sure the test was on Thanksgiving Day, and North Korea has a history of giving “gift packages” on days of significance to Americans. However, it is possible to show that the test was primarily R&D in nature. Indeed, Pyongyang doesn’t need to “signal” its intentions. They have been clear since the Pyongyang Declaration was issued following the 2018 Pyongyang summit meeting between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in. They have been made clearer since through various and sundry statements, declarations and speeches.

The real “signal” wasn’t to be found in the test. That came not long thereafter, as I will explain a bit later.

There have been four tests of the KN-25 MLRS system. After the first test Pyongyang stated that the system required further perfection, strongly implying further flight tests in the near future. After the 31st of October KN-25 test North Korea stated it was meant to “verify the security of launcher’s continuous fire system.” One can see that this has indeed been the key R&D consideration in the four tests. I have developed a series of tables below demonstrating the time differential between the launch of the first and second missiles in each of the multiple launch rocket system tests

23 August 9:45pm 97km Apogee 380km Range
23 August 10:02pm 97km Apogee 380km Range
Time Differential 17 Minuets    
9 September 9:53 pm 50km Apogee 330km Range
9 September 10:12 pm 50km Apogee 330km Range
9 September Failure Failure Failure
Time Differential 19 Minuets    
31 October 7:35am 90km Apogee 370km Range
31 October 7:38am 90km Apogee 370km Range
Time Differential 03 Minuets    
28 November 7:59am 97km 380km Range
28 November 7:59:30am 97km 380km Range
Time Differential 30 Seconds    

This data is provided by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative North Korea missile test database. The significantly decreasing time differential supports North Korea’s contention that the KN-25 tests have been concerned with perfecting the continuous fire system. The 28 November test, with a time differential between missile firings of 30 seconds, supports North Korea’s assertion made in the relevant KCNA press release as cited above regarding finally testing the combat applicability of the system.

This aspect to the KN-25 MLRS tests have been widely interpreted, and widely reported in the media, as steaming from North Korea’s desire to develop a “shoot-and-scoot” capability to evade counter-battery fire. This is surely correct, but I contend it is actually a secondary consideration. The continuous and rapid fire of multiple rockets is intrinsic to any MLRS system because such systems are designed for area suppression fire. An example of this is provided by the following drone footage of a Russian MLRS strike.

However, the KN-25 is not your run of the mill MLRS system. It features fins on the payload section of the rocket, which strongly suggests that the KN-25 rockets are guided hence really ballistic missiles rather than free rockets over ground. The KN-25 could even have a tactical nuclear mission given its calibre (600mm). But even here area suppression is primary (concentrations of maritime amphibious landing craft and combined arms manoeuvre units) and shoot-and-scoot secondary.

Notice that for the 28 November KN-25 test Kim Jong Un was accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army “and commanders of the large combined units of the KPA” (KCNA statement linked above). I have consistently, in each and every post on the KN-25 emphasised that the system appears designed to prevent the combined arms operational level units of the South Korean and United States armies from manoeuvring to pincer Pyongyang as reportedly called for by OPLAN 5015. The commanders of the large combined arms units of the KPA are the men to whom this task would fall in the event of war. I believe it to be significant that they accompanied Kim Jong Un to the November 28 test. That’s a ‘signal” if you will, but lost in all the noise about phantom signals which did not convey information (in the sense of information theory).

To return to the signalling and the guided missile aspects. The signalling, and in a big way, came after the test in response to remarks of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe’s comments were overdrawn, but they were on the money when Abe characterised the KN-25 as a missile rather than an MLRS free rocket over ground. That, correct, contention drew North Korea’s ire and a vice director general of the Department of Japanese Affairs of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement that included this; “Abe may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not distant future and under his nose.” Now that’s a signal. What missile, we cannot know, and by “under his nose” we also cannot be certain but it does suggest something overflying Japan.

Finally, Ri Tae Song, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs in charge of US affairs at the foreign ministry issued a statement carried by KCNA on 3 December which stated

The DPRK has done everything transparently and openly so far. It feels no need to hide what it will do from now on and therefore, reminds the U.S. once again that the year-end time limit comes nearer.

That’s a curious statement, and one that has gone unparsed by both the media and analysts alike. The statement did attract widespread attention from both quarters but not because of this passage. The two sentences above are, firstly, contradictory, and secondly, the first is false. Consider the contradiction. The first sentence states that North Korea has been transparent thus far. The second states from “now on” North Korea will be transparent. A clear contradiction. Moreover, we have good reason to believe that North Korea has not been transparent thus far; about its fissile material production capabilities and stockpile, about the true status of its solid fuel missile programme, about the production and assembly of existing ICBMs and IRBMs. Pyongyang was not transparent about the true nature of what it did at the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri (closed the tunnels rather than collapsed them). All are clouded in secrecy and doubtless many of these activities continued throughout the Singapore process from early 2018 onward.

The statement by Ri can be parsed as North Korea saying it would shed light on some or all of these aspects to its nuclear programme upon the collapse of the Singapore process. The suspected clandestine uranium enrichment plants might come out of the closet. The solid fuel IRBM and ICBM programmes might also.

What did garner widespread attention was Ri’s saying; “it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.” What did the media and the erstwhile think tank experts read into that? You guessed it, “signalling” through ICBM testing about Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline for diplomacy to bare fruit. To that matter we return in a post to follow upon this one (hopefully over the next few days).

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North Korea’s October KN-25 MLRS Test, the Recent Politics of Denuclearisation, and the Agenda for 2020 and Beyond.

The countdown to 2020 is on in earnest and the countdown might yet prove to be that of of a corny 1980s one hit wonder

The name of the band also has an uncertain future.

I’d like to focus on three things here. First, catching up with North Korea’s last KN-25 MLRS test, recent developments in the politics of denuclearisation, and what might be in store for 2020.

KN-25 Super Large Calibre MLRS Test

The month was brought in by an October 31 test firing of the KN-25 MLRS system, what the North Koreans in their statements have called a super large calibre MLRS. Two rockets of the system were tested from the Sunchon airbase in South Pyongan Province to a 370km range and 90km apogee. There has been some discussion that a third was unsuccessfully launched on account of a third canister, apparently, having flipped its lid however no report on telemetry that I’ve seen confirms this.

Anyway, the test was widely reported in the media as being an instance of North Korean “signalling.” You can see however from the relevant KCNA statement that the test was operational and developmental in nature; “The Academy of Defence Science organized the test-fire to verify the security of launchers’ continuous fire system.” Further, “The perfection of the continuous fire system was verified through the test-fire to totally destroy with super-power the group target of the enemy and designated target area by surprise strike.” In earlier tests of the system it was emphasised that confirmation of the systems technical parameters under operational conditions was further required. That is what the October 31 KN-25 test was about.

When the KN-25 was first tested in August an interesting part of the KCNA statement got lost in translation, as it were. Probably because of the media’s mania for “signalling.” The KN-25, according to Kim Jong Un, was rapidly designed and developed by a group of young scientists and engineers, who will continue to improve the defence science base moreover.

“He gave high appreciation, saying that it is, indeed, a great weapon, our young national defence scientists are so clever as to conceive out of their own heads and design and complete the weapon system at one go-off…

…What made him happy today is that a contingent of young and promising talents who will shoulder upon the rapid development of the Juche-oriented defence industry grow in the course of the development of the new weapon…

…the Juche-oriented defence industry will steadily be developed by the talented national defence scientists and technicians faithful to the Party.”

We shall return to this.

North Korea has progressively developed two new MLRS systems of increasing calibre than the KN-09 MLRS (which not long ago we considered new, but now is so much old hat). That’s very interesting. The KN-25 has an estimated calibre of 0.6m (600mm or 60cm). North Korea’s boosted fission weapon, a model (or perhaps not) of which Kim Jong Un showed off below, is estimated to have a width of about 60cm.

That device was tested to an approximately 35KT yield. The fissions are boosted through a high neutron flux provided by fusion reactions involving deuterium and tritium gas. This means the device might be a “dial-a-yield” device whose yield can be manipulated by adjusting the amount of deuterium and tritium gas. Consider the controversial W76-2 warhead programme of the Trump administration. The goal here is to field a low yield tactical version of the W-76 warhead (100KT yield), with a yield of about 6KT. That’s, most likely, achieved by replacing the W76 secondary with an inert secondary for the W76-2 of the same dimensions and mass and by adjusting the amount of deuterium and tritium gas in the primary. North Korea’s boosted fission weapon doesn’t have a secondary, of course, but it could be made to have a lower yield by adjusting or removing the deuterium and tritium gas much like the reported case of the W76-2.

According to a pretty full on denunciation of the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, the KN-25 is not a “missile,” according to the North Koreans, however the guided nature of the rocket does render it a missile (see the fins on the business end of the KN-25), rather than a free rocket over ground, and so US intelligence and most analysts are surely correct in labelling it as such. The KN-25 does now appear in the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative DPRK missile test database. For it to appear in that database it must meet two criteria. That is, “(1) the missile tested meets the minimum threshold necessary to be entered and (2) that the information entered best reflects the events that actually occurred.” The minimum threshold is that any missile entered must have at least a 500kg payload and a 300km range. The KN-25 has a 370km range, and a 500kg payload with a 0.6m calibre puts the KN-25 into the nuclear ball park.

As my readers would know I have been writing about this angle from the get go, and I think the last test of the KN-25 is supportive of this. Consider again the KCNA statement cited from above. “The perfection of the continuous fire system was verified through the test-fire to totally destroy with super-power the group target of the enemy and designated target area by surprise strike.” Consider “with super-power” and “group target of the enemy.” I suggest that the Korean People’s Army has an especial interest in preventing the pincers of OPLAN 5015, the US-ROK operational plan for a second Korean war, from enveloping Pyongyang. The KPA would want to prevent combined arms operational groups from manoeuvring from the south and from doing the same from the east by preventing and or contesting a major landing at Wonsan.

Recent Developments in the Politics of Denuclearisation

Here the major events are well known, however the interpretation of them isn’t as flashy as it could be. What I think is happening is that we’re seeing the start of a blame game; who’s responsible for the breakdown in the denuclearisation talks and North-South détente? The recent developments have been widely interpreted as North Korea upping the ante on its Hanoi position as Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline looms. This is surely a mistaken interpretation. North Korea’s position since the Pyongyang summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in has been invariant; targeted sanctions relief focusing on the civilian economy for dismantlement of Yongbyon. This what Pyongyang refers to as its “method of calculation.” The US position has also been invariant; sanctions relief comes after dismantlement of the North’s nuclear programme.

Those analysts, including much of the mainstream media, who say that North Korea has changed its policy on the Pyongyang Declaration point to a statement on November 18 made by Kim Yong Chol, chairman of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee. Here Kim Yong Chol says that Washington must first end its hostile policy, including but not limited to sanctions relief, and only then would Pyongyang consider denuclearisation. However on November 14 Kim Myong Gil, an ambassador of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs involved in the denuclearisation diplomacy, stated; “If the negotiated solution of issues is possible, we are ready to meet with the U.S. at any place and any time.” Further, “now that we have already informed the U.S. side of our requirements and priority matters, the ball is in the U.S. court.” Thereupon those requirements are all but spelled out, namely sanctions relief targeting the civilian economy precisely as it has been since the Pyongyang Summit.

To attribute a major policy change by North Korea to a press statement by the head of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee only demonstrates that one doesn’t know how North Korea rolls nor how politics works more broadly quite frankly. Sorry for sounding harsh but this is truly amateur hour stuff. To be sure Pyongyang has rejected an overture from Stephen Biegun for a resumption of working level talks in December, through a third party it might be added, and an offer to suspend US-ROK air exercises, and the big one another twitter call by Trump to Kim for a meet up, but it’s clear this is couched within the ambit of the Pyongyang Declaration. According to North Korea the Trump administration is mainly pursuing summitry as a form of big bang public relations for domestic political purposes, and it is no longer interested in being a party to this. That’s been one part of the standard liberal critique of Trump’s dalliance with Kim, and just when Pyongyang repeats the charge the liberal media accuse North Korea of upping the ante.

There’s a general rule to be adopted when it comes to liberal critiques of Trump. What’s interesting is not where they critique the Trump administration, it’s where they don’t that’s revealing. This is one example, the coup in Bolivia is another.

This is an important issue. The media are constructing an historical narrative that blames North Korea for the collapse in the denuclearisation talks. That narrative will justify continued rejection of the Hanoi offer but more importantly whatever hawkish responses Washington might make to a resumption of North Korean long range missile and nuclear weapons testing or whatever else Kim Jong Un might have in stall to break the straitjacket weighing down the North Korean economy. That’s dangerous, as it will encourage whatever escalatory process is further set in train in 2020. There’s more at stake here than a mere question of historical narrative. Getting the narrative wrong encourages harsh measures that risk a nuclear conflict. Getting the narrative right puts further political pressure on the Trump administration, or better still a new more sane administration (should we make it to this time next year) to pick up on the Hanoi offer. But this pressure is nonexistent and the constructed historical narrative has a lot to do with that.

Agenda 2020

What could be North Korea’s agenda for 2020? This we don’t know. We do know Kim Jong Un stated in his 2019 new year address North Korea would pursue a “new way” should the denuclearisation process collapse by the end of the year. One thing we’ve seen North Korean officials point to is a resumption of long range missile testing and nuclear weapons testing. The recent test of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM (but also the KN-23 SRBM) shows that North Korea’s solid propellant and solid motor programme has advanced. It is quite possible that North Korea will test a solid fuel propelled IRBM if not an ICBM in 2020. They may resume nuclear testing at Punggye-ri in 2020 (where they’ve closed but not collapsed test tunnels). Nuclear weapons testing is done for research and development purposes or weapons effects purposes. North Korea might want to test tactical nuclear weapons, say for the KN-25. The widespread assumption has always been that in any second Korean war North Korea will lose. However, the KPA would want to give Pyongyang every chance of winning and tactical nuclear weapons increases those chances. The ICBMs could pose a “window of vulnerability” deterring escalation after the KPA employs battlefield tactical nuclear weapons. That would be a type of intra-war deterrence. That’ll be interesting from a South Korean perspective as tactical nuclear weapons might lead Seoul to question extended deterrence. The US, however, does have the ability to strike North Korea with low yield nuclear weapons and it does think of nuclear operations, certainly in regional contingencies involving “WMD,” in terms of intra-war deterrence.

The 2020 agenda could be “go solid, go tactical.” Next year is an election year so that gives Pyongyang leverage as the Trump administration has touted the suspension of North Korean long range missile and nuclear testing as one of its achievements. This might even encourage Pyongyang to conduct an MET test of an ICBM or IRBM with a live nuclear package.

Rather than having a more strategically stable Korean peninsula heading toward a permanent peace we could end up with a strategic standoff where both sides have a type of intra-war deterrence concept and capabilities built around it. Add a provocation here and there and you’ve got a potentially explosive mix. This can be prevented, and rejecting the historical narrative feed to us is important here.

Zel’dovich, Kaldysh, Sakharov…

To return to the young scientists and engineers. One gets the impression that North Korea’s success with its nuclear and missile programme, and the defence science and military industrial basis to it, has played a role in North Korea’s recent policy emphasis on science and technology as a means to recapitalise the economy. I’ve seen KCNA statements emphasise the key role of education for economic development within this context. Could there be a new generation of scientists, engineers and technocrats brewing within North Korea? If so, we would be talking about people who are not only are intelligent and talented but who know how to think for themselves. In which direction will the young scientists and technicians that Kim Jong Un referred to after the first KN-25 test go? Will they go like Zel’dovich and follow their intellectual passions by concentrating on fundamental theoretical problems? Will they go like Kaldysh and become exulted academicians at the heart of the military-industrial base contributing to the development of society and high technology? Will they go like Sakharov and take their capacity for independent thinking into dissidence? Will they go like China’s red engineers to become a new class moving beyond Kim Il Sungism? Will they go like Teller and Strangelove like churn out more and more advanced weaponry for the state? We cannot tell.

But it is interesting that a recent Rodong Sinmun article was published with the title;Respect for Revolutionary Forerunners Is Noble Moral Obligation of Future Generations. This is the same title of a 1996 work by Kim Jong Il only in the original “future generations” was replaced by “revolutionaries.” Perhaps Kim Jong Un and the senior leadership are aware that the future generation of scientists and technicians might tend to think freely. In which case the greater threat to Kim Jong Un doesn’t come from OPLAN 5015, Trump, the W76-2, Kill Chain and such things. It may come from the very people who gave Kim Jong Un the weapons he so likes to beamingly be photographed by.

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Problems of Realism and Reality: A Brief Disquisition on Hilary Putnam and Scientific and Mathematical Realism

In watching the good interview below with Hilary Putnam, I got to think about his well known no miracle argument for scientific realism. Could it be possible that Putnam was right because he was wrong? That is, could scientific realism be correct because externalist semantics is wrong?

Putnam changed his position on a number of philosophical controversies in his career, which some (if not many) chided him for. I wouldn’t agree with that criticism. There’s nothing wrong with changing one’s position on scientific and philosophical questions, even ones which we might consider fundamental. This indicates a disposition toward open inquiry. What matters are the reasons offered for the change in disposition. Where there can be a problem is when there’s a basic shift in values. For example, in what used to be called “the moral sciences” we see this all the time. Academics, analysts, commentators, and the like can and do change their fundamental values for mostly political or material interests. That we don’t like, and for good reason. It demonstrates a change in, I’d say more forthrightly a betrayal of, intellectual values, for understanding the world no longer constitutes the value underpinning inquiry. Intellectual inquiry becomes a means of achieving fame, notoriety, power, status, money and the like. You don’t see this with Putnam. In fact, the change in his philosophical views can be said to reflect his commitment to intellectual virtue. This is something to admire, rather than criticise.

Putnam was given to realism, it is presented as the unifying theme of his work, and Putnam’s semantic externalism and his scientific realism are viewed as key parts of this unifying theme. His most well known argument for scientific realism was the “no miracle argument.” It would be a miracle if the concepts, laws, and entities of science, especially the physical sciences, did not have a real, physical, existence. Spacetime curvature is real, quarks are real, the equivalence principle is real, electromagnetic fields are real and so on. Time and again we make predications using scientific concepts and theories which are time and again confirmed by experiment. It would be a miracle, says Putnam, if they weren’t real, and because there are no miracles, therefore they are real. I’ve always found this argument a bit weak. It reminds me of Turing’s invocation of applications arising from science, like aeroplanes and computers, in his famous exchange with Wittgenstein. So far as I can see Turing’s argument is a no miracle argument.

These applications are basically one or another form of machine. Say Galileo were to have made a no miracle argument for scientific realism in his day. Now Galileo adhered to the mechanical philosophy so his conception of scientific realism would be mechanical, that is nature is a machine. This also entailed an epistemological thesis namely to know nature is to demonstrate how natural phenomena can be explained using a mechanical theory. Galileo would have been well within his rights to say it would be a miracle if his “idealised” controlled, and quantitative, experiments, inclined plane and all, did not provide insight into reality. Indeed, he might have added, look at all the applications, machines, we have constructed and will continue to construct as we advance understanding. It would be a miracle if all this should turn out to be a convenient fiction, and because there are no miracles (so much for Cardinal Bellarmine), it thereby follows scientific realism, that is the mechanical philosophy, must be correct. Wrong. We know the mechanical philosophy does not account for the fundamental nature of reality.

But let us take another tack. The concepts we use in science, such as mass, matter, energy, space and the like are not intuitive. We have innate concepts of each that are part of the furnishing of the mind, but those concepts we discard when we do science. The meaning of the concepts we use in science come from their use in the theory, which is an idea not unlike Wittgenstein’s use theory of meaning but you’ll find this in Carnap too. Now, because the concepts of our science are not the intuitive concepts that exist in the mind it thereby follows those concepts have a mind independent existence that is, they are real. So, therefore, scientific realism is correct. But notice this argument relies upon a semantic internalism. Meaning is not a question of reference, the meaning of our words and our concepts do not refer to things in the world, but rather meaning exists in the head, within the mind as it were. That science does not use those innate, or intuitive, mental concepts is precisely what makes the concepts of science real. There’s this view that somehow internalism is contrary to realism whereas externalism is consistent with realism if not an expression of its very essence. I don’t see things this way. Let us say that our intuitive mental concepts are innate. Given that there are no miracles, let’s say, it thereby follows their being innate is a consequence of a natural process. Those concepts are real, in the sense that they exist in the mind because of its physical structure and just because they don’t have an existence external to the mind does not make them any less real. In fact, it would be a miracle if our rich and complex conceptual apparatus should have arisen simply through processes of induction and association and there being no miracles and all we say externalism must be false.

Hilary Putnam was correct, because he was wrong.

I suspect what is at issue here is a confusion, if not a prejudice, about the concept physical. We don’t want to ascribe the mental world, indeed the mind tout court, with a real physical existence. I put it to you that our innate mental concepts are physical, just as chairs, rocks, and frogs are real,in that they arise from some unknown physical property of matter, or better still of some physical aspect to nature, obtaining in the brain. It is unknown because our best theories of the physical world do not capture the mental, at least not yet (some even say in principle it shan’t), and because physics does not tell us what “the physical” actually means. This confronts our intuitive, natural or mental or innate, concept of “physical” which entails a type of mind-body dualism. Now notice that under this construal we have an innate concept of the physical, but our science, in this case cognitive science, is suggesting that this innate concept is false and something that needs to be discarded when thinking of what Ryle called the concept of mind. In other words, the idea that mental concepts are real is not unlike the idea that quarks are real. That is, we have here a type of scientific realism. This is consistent with rationalism, or the doctrine of innate ideas and this is how rationalism connects with physicalism. Because mental concepts, and the mind, have a real physical existence, in ways that remain unknown to us, it thereby follows rationalism is correct. This is all neatly consistent, it seems to me.

Finally, I’d like to conclude on a point of mathematical realism. Putnam, of course, was also a philosopher of mathematics and logic. I remember a while back at Parkville attending a lecture by the noted Princeton mathematician Peter Sarnak. I can’t remember the title of the talk, something like “the unreasonable effectiveness of elliptic curves in number theory” or something like that. At some point Sarnak was talking about the Riemann Hypothesis and he said, as I recall it, maybe the problem with Riemann is that humans can’t dig randomness. Riemann is concerned with the question of whether there’s order in the distribution of prime numbers, and the zeros of the Riemann zeta function suggest that there is. My memory is hazy, but I think that’s how It went. However, humans can dig randomness. Just because we have an innate disposition for finding patterns and understanding the relationships that underpin them doesn’t mean we don’t understand randomness.

This is related to the problem of free will. We have three hypothesises here. The two most familiar namely free will is real and determinism, that is free will is an illusion. We have the third due to David Hume namely compatibilism which holds that determinism is compatible with free will. A problem with compatibilism is that to make it intelligible we need to know how determinism is compatible with free will, and it’s hard to do that without first understanding free will. Now we understand determinism and randomness. Perhaps free will relies upon a concept that goes beyond determinism and randomness, but we can’t formulate a hypothesis to deal with the problem of free will because determinism and randomness is all we have to work with. The concept lies outside of our H space, no not Hilbert space, that is our hypothesis space. So, If Sarnak is correct in what he says, and Riemann is something that cannot be cracked because of our mental makeup (as opposed to it being undecidable a la Godel), the problem wouldn’t be randomness the problem would be pretty much the same as free will. We just can’t formulate hypotheses or conjectures that go beyond determinism and randomness, and I suppose pseudo-random patterns are a type of compatibilism in this context. The distribution of prime numbers will always be a mystery for us because their distribution is neither ordered nor random. Perhaps that’s wrong, and Riemann does succumb to a proof.

Could it be possible, nonetheless, that there are some aspects of the number system which are like the problem of free will. Perhaps the number system exhibits features that are neither ordered nor random. Such features would never fall within the ambit of number theory, at least number theory as formulated by humans, and so we could not even formulate hypotheses with regard to them let alone establish proofs. This would mean that the number system has properties that are beyond the conceptual repertoire of human beings in which case the number system would have an existence beyond the mind. That being so the number system would thereby be real. Given that it appears there’s a fundamental unity to mathematics, this is one of the really interesting areas of research in modern mathematics, it would thereby follow that mathematics would also be real. We might have here a general category, unknown and unknowable, that applies well beyond the domain of free will alone. It is what we don’t know, or better still what we cannot know in principle, that is the most interesting and I would suggest the most fruitful vista of epistemology. Yet epistemology is, has been, and doubtless will continue to be dominated by that which we know. To know knowledge is to know what we cannot know in principle.

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Nuclear Barbarossa: Sowing Instability and Running the Risk of War is the Object of Trump’s Iran Policy.

The sowing of instability is the very purpose of the Trump administration’s policy on Iran. I would like to make some remarks about that which I wasn’t able to do in my last post given the focus was elsewhere. I think this is important because a lot of critical analysis in the mainstream adopts the view that rising instability in the Persian Gulf is a consequence of Trump’s foolhardy policy, rather than its very object.

Before we proceed, I should point out, according to a Reuters news report on an upcoming IAEA Report on Iran’s nuclear activities, that Iran is feeding UF6 into IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges at Natanz but not into its two 30 machine IR-6 cascades. The Europeans have stated that the latter would be a “redline.” To my mind this further demonstrates the hitherto calibrated and reversible phased response of Iran to the massive violations of Annex II of the JCPOA and the failure of the Europeans, thus far, to ensure the integrity of this Annex to the Agreement.

Before unleashing Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler stated to the high command of the Wehrmacht; “We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down.”

That sentiment I think has more than a little to do with Iran, but also North Korea I should add. When the US goes hard against Iran and North Korea it does so not because of concerns about nuclear proliferation. Rather, Washington uses concerns about nuclear proliferation to engage in a policy of graduated escalation of pressure with the view to affecting regime change. That policy is based on an optimistic assessment of the propensity of the regime in Iran to collapse. So, “we have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down.” Escalating pressure on Iranian society will compel Iranians to take to the streets and overthrow the regime in Tehran in a second Iranian revolution. When the edifice comes tumbling down Washington need only extend the basket and collect the ripe geopolitical fruits.

Creating instability in the region, but also within Iran through economic sanctions, serves this end. The idea is to create stability by creating instability where stability refers to the crafting of a pliant region subordinate to US power and preferences. Stability does not mean stability as it’s used in an everyday sense. The JCPOA provided for stability as per normal usage but not in terms of Washington speak. I would argue that this too has been a major assumption of policy on North Korea. The regime will inevitably collapse, and Pyongyang’s nuclear programme can be used to hasten that process along through a graduated escalation of economic, diplomatic, and strategic pressure.

But, of course, the other side will respond to this and it responds, in part, by expanding its nuclear activities. In the case of North Korea this led to a working ICBM armed with a deliverable hydrogen bomb targeting US cities. What it will lead to in Iran’s case is uncertain, but every escalation Tehran makes in its nuclear activities is evidently greeted with euphoria by the Trump administration.

This all does indeed sow instability in the region, as it is meant to, and this can indeed get out of control so much so that it leads to some form of military conflict with Iran if only through inadvertence. It almost led to nuclear war with North Korea in 2017 and it might do so again in 2020. My own view is that a good deal of the diplomatic impasse regarding North Korea is not because Pyongyang does not want to disarm and Trump, if not his administration, does not understand this, rather the old assumption about the inevitably of North Korea’s collapse continues to drive policy. Keep the pressure on and the juicy geopolitical fruits in Northeast Asia will fall into Washington’s basket. There isn’t much North Korea can do about this because it’s deterred from nuclear adventurism by Trump’s bigger button.

In both cases the risk of conflict is high, but that’s beside the point. Don’t forget Hitler’s refrain was made to calm concerns the German high command had about an escalation of the war, which they viewed as being too risky for Germany. The hawks in Washington appear convinced that kicking in the door will make both Iran and North Korea collapse. That means running the risk of war is worth the candle. The German foreign minister is reported today as saying Europe should consider renewing sanctions on Iran, which would end the JCPOA. For their part Iran and North Korea too think manipulating risk is the best way to respond to this leaving two sides manipulating external perceptions of risk through a graduated process of escalation. How that’ll end nobody knows, but that’s the very idea. We do know how imperial Japan responded when the squeeze was put on Tokyo before Pearl Harbour.

This of course is all quite insane but that’s reasons of state for you. One wonders what affect climate change has on things like this. As the view that dangerous climate change is inevitable takes hold, through wilful inaction, in the chancelleries of the world would that mean states would have a greater propensity to run nuclear risks in the meantime? That is, let us grab as much as we can while we can and who cares about the probable consequences for civilisation is doomed anyway? I think we’re, in a way, seeing this already in the Arctic. This definitely requires a separate, more detailed and considered, write up.

Remember how the rotten door theory went down the first time should the nuclear crises with both Iran and North Korea escalate in 2020. Germany’s cities were left in ruins, and Hitler’s Wunderwaffe didn’t save them either I might add.

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First as Tragedy, Twice as Farce: Decoding Iran’s Resumption of Enrichment at Fordow and Advanced Centrifuge R&D at Natanz.

It’s said even the best laid of plans go awry, and alas the plan was to write up about North Korea’s last KN-25 MLRS/guided tactical missile flight test prior to moving on to other topics. However, this week’s developments regarding the situation with Iran and the JCPOA have put paid to those plans. I should say, at any rate, there is a connection here to North Korea which is where we’ll conclude this post.

The Iran crisis is a direct function of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA on the most spurious grounds. So much so that “the Iran crisis” or “the Iranian nuclear crisis” and the like are deeply misleading labels. What we have is a generalised “Trump crisis” of which the situation with the JCPOA is a specific part.

Iran this week announced three reversals of its commitments under the JCPOA. Firstly, the introduction of another 30 IR-6 advanced gas centrifuge cascade at Natanz making a total of 63 IR-6s installed in total (another 30 machine cascade and a standalone cascade of 3). Secondly, the announcement of advanced work on a new IR-9 centrifuge with a reported 50 SWU kg per year separation capacity (50 times more powerful than the IR-1) and today’s news, which has attracted a lot of attention, that Iran will begin to enrich uranium at Fordow. The last has made a bigger splash than the first two, however I submit the action should be with the more advanced centrifuges.

These moves were well telegraphed in advance. They didn’t just come out of nowhere.  On May 8 Iran announced it would reduce its commitments under the JCPOA at bimonthly intervals and on October 31 the Iranian foreign ministry stated it would take its fourth step in early November. On October 8 Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, stated Iran in the coming period would introduce another 30 IR-6 centrifuge cascade at Natanz, which meant this was always going to be part of the fourth step. What we’ve seen this week is the graduated unveiling of that fourth step.

According to the reports I’ve seen Iran has announced each of these moves are reversible. So, what we are seeing here is a carefully calibrated process of incremental escalation to compel the Europeans to cushion the blow of US economic sanctions, the snapback of which are massive violations of the JCPOA. The Europeans have agreed to do this as a remaining party to the JCPOA but have thus far not delivered on their end of the bargain. When reading mainstream media reporting on the JCPOA you are left with the impression that it consists of only one Annex, the Nuclear Related Measures Annex. However, there are more for example we have in addition Annex Two Sanctions Related Measures. Both these annexes are the guts of the Agreement, not just the first nuclear related alone.

The snapback of economic sanctions, including secondary boycotts that use the special position of US capital markets in the global economic system, have had a significant impact on the Iranian economy. According to the IMF Iranian GDP will decline by 9.5% for 2019, higher than the 6% forecasted, which is a massive recession by any measure. According to the IMF world oil prices would need to hit $194.6 a barrel for Iran to balance its budget. The IMF forecasts that Iran’s economy will stabilise next year, but that’s predicated on there being no additional measures taken against it. This week President Trump announced new financial sanctions against Iran. Washington will, most likely, continue to put the squeeze on. The above linked Reuters report on the IMF study states, “the IMF forecast Iran’s exports of goods and services to drop to $60.3 billion this year from $103.2 billion last year, and to fall further to $55.5 billion in 2020.” The Europeans are not compensating Iran for this massive external shock to its economy, as they have pledged to do. That’s why Iran has adopted a policy of phased reduction in its commitments to Annex One of the JCPOA. It’s an escalatory process to compel the remaining parties to the JCPOA to ensure Annex Two remains in effect.

The Iranians have claimed each of their phased measures, including the phase four measures, are reversible (a point to which we return). Now consider some of the reported effects the snapback of sanctions has had on Iranian society. According to a Human Rights Watch Report those sanctions “have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.” Further, “While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch found that in practice these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods.” When you read the Human Rights Watch report you get the distinct impression these humanitarian impacts are intended. That makes them, quite simply, crimes against humanity. Should a sick person die as a result that would make for an irreversible affect of Washington’s massive violation of the JCPOA.

Although the corporate media is awash with Iran’s calibrated reduction of its commitments under the JCPOA the effects of the far more significant violations of Annex Two go largely unreported.  The differences between Tehran’s actions and Washington’s are beyond comparison, and this is a small example of the corporate media’s servility in the Trump era. Both Trump’s worshippers and his liberal critics labour under the illusion the corporate media has taken an implacably hostile stance toward the Trump administration.

That said, let’s take a wee look at Iran’s phase four reduction of its JCPOA Annex One commitments. I’m not going to do this in order. I’ll start with Fordow, move on to the IR-6, and conclude with the IR-9.


In its last (August 2019) report on the implementation of the JCPOA the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran had no more than 1,044 centrifuges installed at Fordow and that no nuclear material during the reporting period was introduced to the facility. Under Section 44 of Annex One Fordow “will be converted into a nuclear, physics, and technology centre and international collaboration will be encouraged in agreed areas of research.” Thus Section 45 “Iran will not conduct any uranium enrichment or any uranium enrichment related R&D and will have no nuclear material at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) for 15 years.” Iran is now violating those provisions. Fordow was to be devoted to stable isotope production for research, industrial and medicinal purposes. Under section 46.2 of Annex One that was to be limited to two IR-1 centrifuge cascades, “two cascades that have not experienced UF6 before will be modified for the production of stable isotopes. The transition to stable isotope production of these cascades at FFEP will be conducted in joint partnership between the Russian Federation and Iran on the basis of arrangements to be mutually agreed upon.”

This is where the reported use of the term “reversible” in the announcement of the phase four measures becomes important. As can be seen the JCPOA stipulates stable isotope production is reserved for two cascades that were not feed with UF-6 prior to Implementation Day (the day the agreement came into force). UF-6 is a nasty and highly corrosive gas, centrifuges that have enriched uranium previously are not optimal for isotope separation other than for UF6 thereafter, and usage of “reversible” means that Iran has just announced it is going to feed UF6 into IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow that were fed UF6 in the past. That leaves the two centrifuges stipulated for stable isotope separation under the JCPOA still devoted to this task. It is only on this basis that the announced measure renders as reversible. That makes the Fordow measure a carefully calibrated measure. If the other parties ensure Annex Two holds Iran can return back to the Annex One provisions on Fordow. That’s assuming the reports regarding reversibility are accurate, something to watch out for in the coming period.


This one is interesting. That’s because feeding UF6 into either 30 machine IR-6 cascade or both has been set by the Europeans as a “redline.” For that reason, it would be a major step that could lead to a significant escalation of the crisis. Under Section 32 of Annex One “Iran will continue to conduct enrichment R&D in a manner that does not accumulate enriched uranium.” Under Section 37 regarding the IR-6 specifically “Iran will continue testing of the IR-6 on single centrifuge machines and its intermediate cascades and will commence testing of up to 30 centrifuge machines from one and a half years before the end of year 10.” At phase three of the reduction of its commitments under Annex One Iran announced to the IAEA, as per the Agency’s report on the matter,

“On 7 September 2019, Iran informed the Agency that it intended to install and test, with natural uranium, additional advanced centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) in Natanz. On the same day, the Agency verified that the following centrifuges were either installed or being installed at PFEP. 22 IR-4, one IR-5, 30 IR-6 and three IR-6s.4 All of the installed centrifuges had been prepared for testing with UF6, although none of them were being tested with UF6 on 7 and 8 September 2019.”

The 30 IR-6s put Iran at odds with Section 37 and the latest announcement doubles that up. This opens up the prospect of experimenting with IR-6 centrifuges in cascades greater than 30. The IR-6 has a reported 10 SWU kg/yr separative capacity.

The business regarding Fordow has dominated the airwaves, not so much the matter regarding advanced centrifuges. That’s because discussion of Iran’s activities has always been, and continues to be, dominated by breakout scenarios where accumulation of enriched uranium (even LEU) is all important. I’ve never been too fussed by that. I’ve always been more interested in Iran’s ability to develop small clandestine enrichment plants using more powerful centrifuges. The more Iran experiments with advanced centrifuges, and the more it puts under cascade, the more knowledge and capacity it acquires to do this. Alexander Glaser’s crude breakout scenario involving the A.Q. Khan origin IR-2 (5 SWU kg/yr in his calculation) assumes 987 machines in a maximum cascade of 106 machines. Recall the IR-6 has a reported 10 SWU kg/yr separative capacity.

Work on more powerful centrifuges in larger cascades provides for a type of epistemic breakout, and Trump’s insanity is facilitating this. The JCPOA clearly wanted to place curbs on that by limiting Iranian Research and Development and by having Iran accede to the Additional Protocol to the IAEA Model Safeguards Agreement, which is designed to detect clandestine plants through more open ended inspection and environmental sampling.

The reports I have seen suggest Iran has not introduced UF6 into any of its 30 machine IR-6 cascades, but this too is something worth monitoring closely over the coming days and weeks. It could lead to a breakdown.

The IR-9

Oh, I want my mummy. Ali Akbar Salehi also announced this week that Iran was working on a prototype of an even more powerful centrifuge than the IR-6 called the IR-9. Salehi claimed it’s 50 times more powerful than the IR-1. That means the IR-9 is to have a 50 SWU kg/yr separative work capacity.  Under the JCPOA, again Section 32, “for 10 years and consistent with its enrichment R&D plan, Iran’s enrichment R&D with uranium will only include IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges. Mechanical testing on up to two single centrifuges for each type will be carried out only on the IR-2m, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, IR-6s, IR-7 and IR-8. Iran will build or test, with or without uranium, only those gas centrifuges specified in this JCPOA.” That makes no mention of the IR-9.  The separative work capacity of a centrifuge primarily increases with the length of the rotor wall and the rotor wall velocity, and greater rotor wall velocity is achieved through increasing the strength to weight ratio of the material used to manufacture the rotor. The Iranians seem to be riding the learning curve quite nicely here. If there’s the curve of binding energy, then this is the curve of separating energy.

It takes 232 SWU kg/yr to produce 1 kg of highly enriched uranium. The significant quantity of nuclear material for a modern implosion nuclear weapon whose fissile core is highly enriched uranium is about 12 kg. That makes 2,784 SWU kg/yr to produce enough HEU for one modern implosion device. One IR-9, recall, has a 50 SWU kg/yr separating capacity. The more powerful the gas centrifuge the lower the footprint of a clandestine enrichment plant, which would make it harder to detect especially using technical means at a distance. Here’s a pic of the IR-9 in some of its glory (this comes from an Iranian TV news report uploaded to YouTube by Ali Javid).

North Korea

Okay, so what’s the deal with North Korea? Well, North Korea has been at this game longer than Iran and, you’d think, has made more progress than Iran. So, if the Iranians are getting a prototype of an IR-9 what makes you think North Korea doesn’t have a machine with a similar capacity, if not a machine with more separative capacity? Now remember that 2018 CNBC report, citing US intelligence officials, claiming North Korea has multiple clandestine enrichment sites

“U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months and may try to hide these while seeking concessions in nuclear talks with the United States, NBC News quoted U.S. officials as saying.”


“The network cited U.S. officials as saying that the intelligence assessment concludes that North Korea has more than one secret nuclear site in addition to its known nuclear fuel production facility at Yongbyon.”

Subsequent to that report one of those was fingered by analysts at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, namely the Kangson enrichment plant near Chollima. It is the oldest North Korean enrichment plant, and reportedly its location wasn’t fixed by US intelligence until 2010 (although it appears to have been operational since 2003). So where are the others? They haven’t been publicly disclosed nor pinpointed by researchers.  They (or it) could be hard to find because North Korea has installed them (or it) with advanced centrifuges as the plants (or plant) which house them have a relatively small footprint. It’s not clear that the US intelligence assessment is based on technical intelligence gathering as opposed to human intelligence either.

The North Korean angle, I submit, shows you what research and development into powerful centrifuges can lead to. The mushrooming of clandestine enrichment plants that cannot be permanently bombed out of existence even when detected. The epistemic genie is then well and truly out of the bottle. This is more significant than traditional breakout scenarios.  

Now consider the possible state of play in 2020. Iran completely withdraws from the JCPOA and the diplomacy with North Korea has collapsed. North Korea, prior to entering that process, stated it would not sell any of its nuclear technology to potential foreign buyers. It’s quite possible, then, that North Korea might arrange a little A.Q. Khan type advanced centrifuge package for Iran (or another buyer) in which case you’ll get a working cascade or two or three of IR-9 centrifuges sooner than you think.

Which just goes to show how much of a dickhead Trump is.  Reports in the mainstream press in the past week have repeated the usual canard that Trump withdrew from the JCPOA because it doesn’t limit Iran’s missile programme and because of Tehran’s actions in the Middle East. That’s so much bullshit. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA because it was negotiated by Obama so therefore had to be destroyed, and secondly because, for Pompeo and co especially, its reflective of a regional strategy that seeks to create stability by creating instability. Stability is a technical phrase meaning adherence to US plans and preferences. Iran does not have a sufficiently servile foreign policy, which is contrary to stability, so in order to create a more servile Iran Washington must sow instability.  

That’s not too dissimilar to the last time the Reaganites were in power. Then the Bush administration policy was AOC, Anyone Other than Clinton. Because the Agreed Framework with North Korea was associated with Clinton it had to go. That played no small role in the advent of the Kangson enrichment plant. Now we’ve got Anyone Other than Obama, and so we’re heading toward another Kangson this time under the sands of Persia.

First as tragedy, twice as farce.

Finally, before I conclude this post which has exceeded my planned word length (the best laid and all that) I upload this selection of traditional Iranian music. I played it in the background as I was working on this. I offer it as a reminder that there’s more to Iran than missiles and centrifuges.

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Contiki Denuclearisation: Tourism and the Collapse of Working Level Talks with North Korea in Sweden.

Recent developments regarding North Korea appear to confirm some of the key themes of my previous post. In that post I suggested the recent working level talks on denuclearisation in Sweden collapsed because the United States did not provide a sanctions relief package. However, it has been widely reported Washington did offer sanctions relief in exchange for a substantial step toward denuclearisation, an assumption shared by most commentators. As suggested in that post, a hypothesis one might draw, rather, was the US offered, at best, tourist development at Sweden in exchange for a substantial step toward denuclearisation. That’s not a serious offer.

Heading into the working level talks an article appeared at Vox which suggested US negotiators would offer North Korea sanctions relief targeting specific sectors of the civilian economy, textiles and coal, for 36 months in exchange for dismantlement of Yongbyon if not all of North Korea’s fissile material production facilities.

The Vox report led many to blame North Korea for the collapse of the talks but notice this position relies on an uncritical acceptance of the report’s accuracy. Subsequent to the diplomatic breakdown President Trump made remarks about a “rebuild” in North Korea, with a specific focus on the Kalma Tourist Resort project near Wonsan. Not long thereafter Kim Jong Un visited the Mt Kumgang Tourist Resort, the well known joint venture between Seoul and Pyongyang, and the Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort. In both visits Kim Jong Un placed especial emphasis on the need for self reliance in tourist industry development, in the case of Mt Kumgang so much so that its revitalisation would no longer be conducted in association with the South Kim declared. Satellite imagery analysis published at 38 North by Peter Makowsky suggests the Kalma Tourist Resort is well advanced.

Now a lengthy Reuters report was published this week following the North’s testing of its “super-large calibre” MLRS (the test is left for a subsequent write up). It covered a lot of ground. Here are some remarks attributed to a diplomat in the know regarding the working level talks in Sweden

Although some media reports said the United States planned to propose temporarily lifting sanctions on coal and textile exports, the diplomat said the talks in Stockholm did not get into details.

“The U.S. can’t take the risk of easing sanctions first, having already given a lot of gifts to Kim without substantial progress on denuclearization, including summits,” the diplomat said. “Sanctions are basically all they have to press North Korea.”

You can see from this what the pre Stockholm Vox report by Alex Ward said would happen at Stockholm didn’t happen, but still it remains the default position of commentators whose task is not to inform rather to spin developments in the interests of power. The original article appears to have been a false leak designed to shape perceptions of the diplomacy, and those responsible for this correctly relied upon the mainstream media’s usual source of analytical commentary to play ball.

Further along we get this

The United States and South Korea suggested tourism, rather than resuming the Kaesong operation, as a potential concession to the North after the failed second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February, the Seoul-based diplomat said.

It appears in return for a concrete step toward disarmament, likely the dismantlement of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon (in whole or in substantial part) perhaps also additional to the Kangson uranium enrichment plant, the United States and South Korea offered tourism joint ventures in exchange.

That’s, of course, a joke. North Korea’s position since the Pyongyang Declaration, co signed by Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in during their Pyongyang Summit, has been clear. Yongbyon for a substantial reciprocal concession, focused on sanctions relief. The relevant passage of the Yongbyon Declaration reads

The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement. 

For Yongbyon North Korea is asking for a reciprocal step by the United States to end what it calls its “hostile policy.” Pyongyang regards Yongbyon as a concrete substantial step toward “denuclearisation” and for this, it is clear, it expects a concrete substantial step by Washington toward ending the hostile policy. It sees that in terms of sanctions relief not peanuts such as tourist industry codevelopment, to paraphrase General Zia-ul-Haq. South Korea’s acceptance of the US formulation means it has distanced itself from this aspect of the Pyongyang Declaration.

You can see how Kim Jong Un’s recent on the spot guidance at Mt Kumgang and Yandok fits into the picture. They demonstrate that he doesn’t need the assistance of Seoul and Washington here, the satellite imagery of Kalma seems to support this, which means tourism development is not a “corresponding measure” as per the Pyongyang Declaration. Why give up big chunks of the regime’s “crown jewels,” to again borrow from Pakistan, in return for a pittance? It’s pretty obvious that demanding the crown jewels for a penny is not a proper negotiating stance.

One can see how this undermines the entire tenor of the Reuters article., which is based on the view Pyongyang has firmed its stance hence the Stockholm breakdown. It hasn’t. The stance remans as per the Yongbyon Declaration.

In further developments a study commissioned by the INGO “Korea Peace Now”

Found that 3,968 North Koreans died due to sanctions-related delays and funding deficits in 2018, including 3,193 children under the age of 5 and 72 pregnant women.

United Nations programs that address malnutrition, hygiene and sanitation issues, reproductive health and vitamin A deficiencies were hit especially hard, according to the report.

These are described, even by Korea Peace Now, as “unintended” impacts of the sanctions regime. That is false. These impacts are intended, and that makes the United Nations sanctions crimes against humanity. The humanitarian situation in North Korea is well known (for instance it’s known that almost 50% of the population is undernourished). What’s the predictable consequence of a sanctions regime under such circumstances? The death of thousands of children, including through diarrhea, is a predictable consequence of economic sanctions that’s what.  To proceed with sanctions targeting the civilian economy, knowing of these predictable consequences, would render their predictable impact intentional.

Consider the depravity of the situation. At Hanoi North Korea offered Yongbyon dismantlement, as per the Pyongyang Declaration, in exchange for relief from sanctions specifically targeting the civilian economy. This would have alleviated the suffering of Koreans and offered Washington and Seoul a measure of strategic stability. To this Washington said no. The United States, instead, demanded the final, fully verified, dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme (essentially CVID) upfront a.k.a. “the Libya model.” So, the sanctions remain, and so Korean children continue to die. The object of all this is to give the world a signal lesson; the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. North Korea must be seen as conceding to the US, not the other way around, nor indeed can the concessions be seen as mutual and reciprocal as North Korea is not equal in power. As “Madame Secretary” stated with regard to the Iraq sanctions the death of children is a “price,” for us not them mind you, “but we think the price is worth it.”

Consider the bind this puts South Korea in. Seoul has been manoeuvred into jointly demanding Yongbyon in return for tourism industry development, but that leaves the sanctions regime essentially in place. Attending to the interest American foreign policy elites have in demonstrating the perceived credibility of US power ranks as a higher policy priority for Seoul than arresting the humanitarian impact of the sanctions regime on fellow Koreans. It’s not just Trump and the Trump administration that share this interest. As shown in Congress last week liberal Democrats too demand Pyongyang give off the appearance it has kneeled before US power. They demanded the diplomatic process end given North Korea has shown no willingness to compromise with the US. It’s quite clear, however, that it has shown ample willingness to compromise if by compromise we mean a process of mutual and reciprocal concessions. What North Korea has demonstrated, by contrast, is an unwillingness to surrender on bended knee before Zod.

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Sundries and Extras

Philosophy: Rationalism, in part, is the idea that there’s such a thing as innate ideas or innate knowledge. Rationalism as a philosophical, or better still scientific, thesis should not be confused with rationalism as ideology. These are two different things. I’d say I’m a rationalist in the former sense, but certainly not the latter sense.

It turns out that antirationalism itself is innate, according to research published at MIT’s Open Mind Journal, discussed in a good Northeastern University media article (one of the researchers, Iris Berent, is of Northeastern)

“In one of eight experiments, Berent and her co-authors asked participants to think about what it’d be like to grow up on a deserted island, speculating which traits might spontaneously emerge in someone who hasn’t had a chance to observe them in others. In another experiment, they asked participants which traits might spontaneously appear in birds; in another, they asked the same question about aliens.

Time after time, people were more likely to reason that the only traits that would appear would be motor skills and emotions—not cognitive skills, or “knowledge”—even when the researchers made reference to real-world experiments that showed the contrary.”

That being the case the interesting question then becomes; why does this cognitive bias toward antirationalism arise? Here things are by no means settled, but Berent has a good theory

“Of the certain principles that help us make sense of the world, one is believing that the “essence” of an object is at its core and is tangible: Research has shown that children assert that a brown dog’s offspring is also brown because a tiny piece of matter transfers from the former to the latter. This suggests that kids have a grasp of inheritance even before they’re taught as much.

However, imagining inheritance as a physical process competes with another principle: thinking of the mind and body as separate (even though science tells us otherwise, notes Berent). For example, if your hairdresser wants to pick up his pair of scissors, no one needs to push his hand for him to do it; if he has the physical ability to pick it up, he need only decide to pick it up, and the hand moves—by shear will, so to speak. His mind acts, and his body follows.”

There’s some irony there, of course. The doctrine of innate ideas and mind-body dualism are both associated with Rene Descartes, and so we have a kind of Cartesian circle at play. Our innate Cartesian dualism leads us to exhibit a cognitive bias against Cartesian innatism, so the dualism has us rejecting the innatism. That may well be the case, but I suspect something else might be at play or at the very least additionally at play. That’s the idea of knowledge itself. There’s been some stuff done in Xphi or experimental philosophy regarding our intuitive, innate if you will, ideas regarding knowledge. A lot of that seeks to tease out our ideas regarding warranted assertibility or justification (internalist, externalist, foundationalist, coherentist and so on) and I think a fruitful link might be drawn with the work on innate antirationalism. My understanding is Xphi tends to show our intuitions regarding knowledge to be externalist, and that’s consistent with Berent’s explanation for the underlying source of our innate antirationalism. Knowledge is something that arises through induction, association, and the conscious use of reason and as such is something that’s acquired as we go about the world. This innate externalism has us ruling out innate knowledge.

To go deeper still, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t all tied up to the justified true belief conceptualisation of knowledge. Our intuitive concept of knowledge is strongly tied up to warranted assertibility and it is this that leads to an innate externalist epistemology. However, the Gettier examples demonstrate this traditional JTB conceptualisation of knowledge does not hold. So, we get another interesting little circle, namely Plato’s. This is because Plato held two competing theses, one a theory of innate knowledge via the slave boy argument and the other a JTB conceptualisation of knowledge. One must go, and that’s the traditional idea of knowledge.

Notice the thesis of innate antirationalism, going down this epistemic axis of attack, strongly implies a little theory I’ve held for many years. Namely, knowledge itself is a physical category and a true theory of knowledge, a true naturalistic epistemology, would be one which provides a physicalist rendering of knowledge. This, however, would first require us to rethink our concepts of the physical such that they become more mental.

Finally, just because there’s a natural cognitive bias at work does not mean antirationalism in the wider intellectual culture gets a free pass. Our cognitive biases regarding mass, space, time, gravity and so on we know to be false, and that fact is widely accepted and appreciated. This means the antirationalism of the broader intellectual culture cannot be solely attributed to an innate cognitive bias. Here we require sociological explanations, by which I mean sociological analyses of the intelligentsia as a social class.

Plutonium: Scientists at the European Synchrotron have discovered a new stable, solid state, form of plutonium which “features an unexpected, pentavalent oxidation state.” This will affect our understanding of plutonium aging over very long lifetimes, something of relevance for the modelling of nuclear waste. Speaking of plutonium, researchers have claimed to have found evidence of heavy element formation in colliding neutron stars in this case strontium. It is hoped further refining and development of data gathering, analysis and interpretation of kilonovas will also empirically detect the astrophysical formation of the other heavy elements such as uranium thus solving the problem of how the heavy elements were formed

“But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the “r-process” for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.

Prior work suggested that a likely source of r-process elements could be the catastrophic aftermath of mergers between neutron stars”

As we know too well, a neutron flux can make things go bang.

Science and Society: There’s a good interview at the New York Review of Books with Noami Oreskes on science and climate change denial. The interview comes as her latest book Why Trust Science reaches publication. Oreskes is concerned with something quite important, the abuse and denial of science with potentially deadly consequences for human civilisation. This concern of Oreskes contrasts with Steven Pinker who is exercised by too much PoMo at the Harvard Faculty Club (the humanities part that is). In a New Republic essay (just linked) on science and the humanities he wrote

“This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.”

There’s a connection to Oreskes and climate change denial there. A lot of the commentary I’ve read about climate change denial, which focuses on the political and economic influence of the fossil fuel industry, too readily focuses on the merchants of doubt rather than their audience. One cannot explain matters fully by assuming the masses are an unthinking lump of clay readily moulded by the merchants (see how empiricist ideas of human nature die hard). Why has their message found fertile ground? In my view, Karl Polanyi’s ideas in his classic The Great Transformation are important here. Neoliberalism has led to the rise of irrational belief in society, just as the original version chronicled by Polanyi had done (a factor accounting for the rise of fascism in his view). This is seen in more domains than climate change. People understand that they’re being shafted and being lied to, and this leads to a generalised suspension of belief. Oreskes asks for trust in science at a time when many aren’t given to trust. For Pinker science underpins the very order against which many in society increasingly direct a generalised rage toward. Don’t forget the injustices and inequities of neoliberal capitalism are justified upon the basis of a metaphysically naturalist science of economics. The minimum wage should stay where it is because that’s what the science of economics tells us. The more Pinker and others like him say the social order is underpinned by science the less apt are people to trust science, and more to the point scientists. This fertile ground, provided by the depredations and inequities of neoliberal capitalism, is the essential soil upon which the merchants of doubt sow their seeds. This needs to be more readily acknowledged. It’s one of the reasons why we need a Green New Deal or a transition with justice.

Was Einstein Right? So asked Clifford Will in his classis on the renaissance of general relativity. Yes, says this great overview of the experimental basis of general relativity at International Engineering. It’s often said quantum electrodynamics is the most precisely experimentally confirmed physical theory, although Roger Penrose has always argued general relativity is. Richard Feynman, I think, did most to popularise the claims of QED to having this status, which makes sense given, to paraphrase Silvan Schweber, he was one of the men who made it. The claim for QED is not unrelated to the case for quantum gravity; general relativity must be superseded because the quantum is more empirically precise. It’s interesting that there’s been a few theories of quantum gravity in the last 70 years, but not one of them has made a single, let alone the single most precise, experimentally verified prediction.

Space Exploration or Space Exploitation: Monica Vidaurri has an interesting essay at Quartz on the ethics of space exploration.

“When it comes to an industry as young as space exploration, its important to recognize colonization, imperialism, and exploitation as not just a series of major historical events that humanity is still recovering from,  but as things that can conceivably inspire the future laws that will determine our fate in space…(Snip)

But we need rules, regulations, and recourse for justice. And how can we achieve that if we have never succeeded in solving those issues on our own planet? The minute we launch into space, our human tendencies and ideologies are not magically left on Earth…(Snip)

If we want to create a truly sustainable and responsible space environment, we must ensure that our efforts are transparent, ethical, and inclusive, and that we fully understand our historical tendencies as wealthy nations with an affinity for capitalism.”

She’s surely right about that. The space age was preceded by sort of cosmic or cosmological theories of emancipation. Space exploration would provide for a type of spiritual transformation and material abundance facilitating cooperation, solidarity, and mutual aid among humanity as a whole. This was carried into popular representations during the space age itself, witness for instance Star Trek. Space exploration was a way of solving worldly problems, and this idea survives in all sorts of interesting ways. But what Vidaurri is saying here is we’ve got all that wrong. We must sort our shit on Earth first, otherwise we’ll just take it all with us to space. Yep, that’s spot on. We think space will make of us Vulcans, but we’re the fuckin’ Klingons, Ferengi and Vogons rolled into one. In a way we have taken our ways to space, if you view Earth in both Spaceship Earth and Anthropocene terms. One way we’ll continue to do this is through the securitisation of space.

Missile Defence: Speaking of which, there were interesting remarks coming from the Missile Defense Agency this month on a few aspects to future BMD or MD as it’s now called. One was the expressed need to develop a more integral missile defence architecture. The slate of sensor technologies across the multiple BMD platforms, such as PAC-3 and THAAD etc, need to be better integrated through timely communication of information according to the link above. This would have implications for regional BMD architectures, especially in Northeast Asia. So South Korean BMD could more readily receive battle management data from US and Japanese sensors, and vice versa. Opposition law makers in South Korea have called for more information sharing with Japan. The basis on which this call was made, South Korea didn’t detect many of North Korea’s missile tests from May this year onward, was false. It did, however there was uncertainty, especially early on, about what precisely was being flight tested. Japan and South Korea do have an intelligence sharing pact, General Security of Military Information Agreement, but that’s come under strain given the recent rise of tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. Seoul announced it would withdraw from the pact, but it remains in force

“Under GSOMIA, South Korea earlier this month shared with Japan its assessment of North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile, helping Japan correct its mistaken evaluation that Pyongyang launched two short-range missiles, rather than a single sub-launched ballistic missile that can strike more extended-range targets.”

An integrated BMD architecture communicating information across Northeast Asia means you wouldn’t be talking about South Korean or Japanese BMD but rather a single integrated system including US interceptors and sensors. North Korea would want to take regional BMD out early in a conflict on the Korean peninsula in that instance. Regardless of the niceties of data sharing diplomacy surely KPA strategic planners will consider regional BMD to be a single integrated system, and the recent comments by the MDA would give them no reason to disabuse themselves of this notion. A lot of what North Korea has tested since May has a BMD focus to it, and it serves as further reminder that missile defence is one of the world’s main sources of strategic instability.

Russia and China’s Early Warning System:  Also, this month Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is helping China build an early warning system for detecting ballistic missile launches, presumably including both ground based and space based sensors. This is something definitely worth keeping on your radar. Will China adopt a launch on warning posture? If so, what would that entail for Beijing’s no first use doctrine and the manner in which it deploys its nuclear warheads? There’s little point in having a launch on warning system if warheads are stored separately from missiles. Also, Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, announced that Russia would be sending to Serbia its S-400 SAM system for the “Slavic Shield” joint air defence exercises at Batajnica airfield, whereupon they’ll go back whence they came. Batajnica was bombed by NATO in 1999 when Putin was head of Yeltsin’s Security Council of Russia, therefore NATO’s “technical courier,” as he himself put it at the time, so the Slavic shield is 20 years too late.

North Korea and Socialism: There’s been some important stuff coming out of North Korea since Kim Jong-un’s ascent of Mt Paektu on a white horse. This deserves an entry in its own right. There was one wee KCNA commentary that drew my eye. It relayed an article published by Rodong Sinmun on the “3rd anniversary of the publication of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s work ‘The Duty of the Working Class of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il for the Times and the Tasks Facing Trade Union Organizations’”. The commentary goes on;

“It is the unwavering will of the whole working class to be loyal to the idea and guidance of the leaders all the times.

Today the heroic Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il working class lives with their lots cast in with the Party Central Committee and shares the intention, breath and step with the leader.”

In recent North Korean news reports, there’s been much mentioned of both self reliance and socialism. The comments quoted above have absolutely nothing to do with socialism, and they encapsulate well the inherently anti socialist character of North Korean society. The article calls for the absolute and perpetual subordination of the working class to the state and the party central committee. Notice it does so on the basis of a type of organicism. Neohegelian ideas regarding the organic nature of collectivist entities are important features of our own conceptions of corporate personhood, and they can be found in Stalinist and fascist thought as well. I think organicist conceptions of society are well suited to inherently hierarchical and nondemocratic forms of collectivism.

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Working Level Nuclear Talks Between U.S. and North Korea Collapse in Stockholm.

The prospect of working level talks between the United States and North Korea was the major tangible outcome of the Panmunjom tete a tete between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. As we know these were convened in Stockholm on October 5, after a lot of uncertainty in the interim period as to whether they would proceed, and thereupon quickly collapsed. As we have witnessed repeatedly since the Singapore process began, we were presented with two versions as to the why and wherefore, and since Singapore, on every occasion, the North Korean version has proved the more accurate.

You’d put your money on Pyongyang’s version again being more in tune with the facts, but not if you’re paid by a foreign policy think tank or a major university of course.

Heading into the summit a report by Alex Ward at Vox stated

“Here’s the offer, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations: The United Nations would suspend sanctions on Pyongyang’s textile and coal exports for 36 months in exchange for the verifiable closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and another measure, most likely the end of North Korea’s uranium enrichment.”

This offer was perceived as being closer to North Korea’s position on how diplomacy should proceed, that is via a step-by-step reciprocal process as opposed to Trump’s hitherto big bang approach of all or nothing. Limited, and reversible, sanctions suspension for 36 months in exchange for verified and irreversible dismantlement of much of, if not all, North Korea’s fissile material production facilities isn’t too reciprocal. We tend to forget the emphasis on reciprocal in step-by-step reciprocal process. Tit-for-tat is how North Korea has rolled since the 1990s. However, North Korea claims that’s not what happened at Stockholm. That is, the US didn’t make the above offer.

The North Koreans allege the US, note post Bolton, made its familiar demand of complete, verified and irreversible dismantlement prior to the making of concessions of its own. The US, by contrast, stated that the talks were long and fruitful and expressed a willingness to resume them in two weeks. The North Koreans stated it would be highly unlikely Washington would change its position in two weeks, and so again we are at an impasse.

The Ward report does not discuss timing. That is would sanctions suspension follow Yongbyon+ verified dismantlement, or would it be in place as the process (verifiably) proceeded?

Now there are two interesting things here, well worth reflecting upon. The first is that Western commentators and analysts, often referred to as foreign policy experts in the mainstream media (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting link), widely repeated the charge Pyongyang was responsible for the breakdown at Stockholm. North Korea, it was often claimed, was repeating a familiar brinkmanship style of diplomacy to extract maximum concessions. The second is that the US ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, stated that Pyongyang was to blame for the collapse of working level talks because it wanted “everything” in exchange for “nothing,” a familiar charge (recall Trump and Pompeo at Hanoi).

Notice the second is obviously false. North Korea, as stated above, has consistently called for a step-by-step reciprocal process. It has consistently, since Hanoi, called for Washington to change what Pyongyang dubs its “method of calculation” with the emphasis, to repeat, on the reciprocal. That’s been the bedrock North Korean position, there’s no mystery here, for that is precisely what was called for in the Panmunjom Declaration between Kim Jong-un and the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. There both Pyongyang and Seoul agreed that the North’s offering up Yongbyon in exchange for “suitable concessions,” which we know to be relief from sanctions targeting its civilian economy. That makes “the method of calculation” not just Kim’s but also Moon’s. However, the South has made further progress on building North-South ties contingent on North Korea agreeing with the US on a denuclearisation accord. Yet Pyongyang sees Washington as the main barrier here, which explains, to no small degree, a lot of the anti Seoul rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang recently. So, to repeat, the Harry Harris charge is false and thus we have the familiar pattern; the North Korean characterisation is more accurate than the American.

See how that affects the widespread charge made by our erstwhile foreign policy experts? Their position rests on the supposition that North Korea changed its formulation, “its method of calculation” as it were, but Pyongyang has been consistent on this since the Panmunjom Declaration. This then leads to a further hypothesis, for the question then becomes; what of the Ward report? This report has played an important role in the way commentators and analysts have framed Stockholm because it suggests Pyongyang was made a reasonable interim offer, a change from the hitherto all or nothing US stance. It is possible that North Korea rejected this on account of the factors mentioned above. It is also possible that the report, based on information from US official sources, was a means for those sources to plant information in the public sphere suggesting a change in US stance while at Stockholm the usual fare would be offered Pyongyang. That way, the North Koreans could take the hit with the foreign policy experts reliably playing their assigned role.

It’s difficult to tell. I’d like to see more information but given what we know the second remains a plausible hypothesis. These two hypotheses, we might point out, are not mutually exclusive.

Now a report has just come out, originally from a South Korean outlet, that adds mud to the water, or you might say clears the water. This report claims that at Stockholm the US offered North Korea assistance in the construction of the Kalma Beach Tourist Resort not far from Wonsan (at a location where North Korea previously engaged in massed artillery exercises). This was made in exchange for steps toward denuclearisation, steps unspecified we might say. In some English language reports this has been translated as assistance for Kalma in exchange for denuclearisation. Others stress partial denuclearisation. The translation of the original South Korean source suggests partial denuclearisation. Note in the Ward report there’s no mention of Kalma.

What might have happened is this. North Korea was offered an interim deal whereby it commits to the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon (perhaps also the Kangson enrichment plant) in exchange for assistance with the completion of the Kalma Beach Tourist Resort. If so, then the deal Washington offered at Stockholm was little more than a joke. I can see a North Korean negotiating team up and walking when learning of it and muttering that the whole affair was “sickening” as they did. Interestingly enough Donald Trump in the last few days has talked about what he calls a “rebuild,” seemingly in reference to Kalma, and Kim Jong-un has just completed on the spot guidance at the joint North-South Mt Kumgang tourist resort stating North Korea will rebuild it on its own without input from Seoul (or Washington presumably).

My bet is that at Stockholm the United States remained committed to its position of disarmament before all else or offered a deal considered well below what Pyongyang has called for since the Panmunjom Declaration and the Hanoi summit. Both are consistent with the Melian Dialogue like aspect to all this, something I’ve been writing about consistently for quite a while now. The United States, Athens, is not making an offer to Melos, North Korea, that it perceives as being below its dignity as a great power. North Korea must be seen to suffer what it must, and that requires a deal which is *not* reciprocal in nature.

There were some other useful tidbits during this period for us to consider. Not long after North Korea’s test of its new Pukguksong-3 SLBM the European members of the UN Security Council called for North Korea “to engage in good faith meaningful negotiations with the United States, and to take concrete steps with a view to abandoning all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” That provides a good guide as to what Washington might have demanded at Stockholm, i.e. concrete steps toward CVID (perhaps Yongbyon plus Kangson), but the Europeans make no indication of what Washington offered in return. It quite simply had to be less than what Pyongyang called for at Hanoi given North Korea’s repeated refrain regarding “the method of calculation.” For their part the North Koreans demanded Washington make “concrete and irreversible” steps toward sanctions relief. You get the drift.

Now the North Koreans made some interesting statements hot on the heels of this. North Korean officials stated, following its recent missile tests, should the matter be brought to the Security Council Pyongyang would be compelled to take measures to defend its sovereignty, and to reversing commitments made in April 2018 prior to the Singapore process starting. Regarding those measures the North’s UN representative said they wouldn’t necessarily involve a missile test. In the April 2018 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party North Korea announced the suspension of long range missile and nuclear weapons testing. In recent comments the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces of South Korea stated that Pyongyang could quickly restore tunnels 3 and 4 at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. North Korea has always oversold its supposed demolition work at Punggye-ri. Should North Korea reverse the April 2018 Plenum restoration work at Punggye-ri might be its first physical manifestation, rather than a long range missile test. Don’t forget the April 2018 policy pronouncement included not just missile and nuclear testing. Pledges were made there regarding nonproliferation that might be reversed too in future.

This all, of course, brings us to the white horse as not long after Pyongyang’s UN representative spoke Kim Jong-un ascended Mt Paektu upon a white horse. This was widely ridiculed, with widespread howls of laughter doubtless picked up by some exoplanet SETI programme in the far reaches of the galaxy. Yet so easy do we forget. What of the swashbuckling cowboy Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t averse to straddling a white horse or two in demonstration of his presidential virality?  The same Ronald Reagan, according to Abram Sofaer, of the Hoover Institution (affiliated to Stanford University), whose “spirit seems to stride over the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.”

The warm and friendly ghost providing on the spot guidance
The warm and friendly ghost ascends the sacred mountains prior to unleashing the supply side revolution. This you can actually buy as a wall ornament.

Oh, and what about the Wallop Senate drive of Malcolm Wallop (an arch Reaganite conservative). Oh, and the original Marlboro Man and so on. The absurdities of North Korean propaganda one can understand, but the very same absurdities exhibited by our own propaganda systems we don’t even notice. This brainwashing under freedom, most especially among the educated and the expert, is surely the more interesting to contemplate.

At any rate, there has been some hefty speculation as to what the white horse was all about. It’s been noted, correctly, that Kim Jong-un has visited Mt Paektu prior to making important policy pronouncements or shifts in policy. The relevant KCNA statement concluded;

“Having witnessed the great moments of his thinking atop Mt Paektu, all the officials accompanying him were convinced with overflowing emotion and joy that there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again and make a step forward in the Korean revolution.”

What could this be? It could be the “new way” that Kim spoke of in his 2019 new year address that he’d pursue should the peace process collapse. That new way was not specified then, and nor is it now. It might involve, as I have argued for yonks, a type of “threat that leaves something to chance” as Pyongyang manipulates external perceptions of risk to extract concessions that cannot be extracted through diplomacy. At the domestic level, to speculate, it might be like Gorbachev’s “Uskoreniye” or “Acceleration” reform policy pursued prior to Perestroika. An important facet of this was accelerating the scientific and technological basis of the Soviet production system. Kim Jong-un, who has placed especial emphasis on science and technology, might announce something similar. The white horse has been used as a symbol of the Chollima movement of the Kim Il-sung era which stressed speeding up the rate of industrial production. This was a type of Stakhanovism that has never been officially renounced in North Korea, with a Stakhanovite labelled a “Chollima Rider.” I suspect this would partially involve the use of nuclear energy, something that Kim spoke of in the 2019 new year address without further elaborating.

The bottom line of Stockholm it seems to me is this. We have until the new year to strike a deal with Pyongyang. Recent comments from Pyongyang suggest the Hanoi deal remains on the table. We have a choice. We can go back to 2017, if not something altogether worse, or we accept the arrangement North Korea offered at Hanoi. Yongbyon for sanctions relief. I would suggest that choosing the latter is the better, more rational way, to proceed assuming security is a priority as opposed to considerations of power. That would require changing the way we think about North Korea, as it entails accepting a relationship of mutual deterrence. It’s very hard to do this so long as our perception of North Korea is dominated by the narrative of weird little North Korea, “another country” to paraphrase Bruce Cumings, as the more weird we regard North Korea to be the less apt are we to accept a posture of mutual deterrence with it. The episode of the white horse is instructive. It shows, whatever it shows regarding North Korea, that our attitude and disposition toward this other country remains unconducive for the ready acceptance of mutual deterrence.

But don’t be worryin’ y’all. There is that spirit striding on a white horse watching over us like a warm and friendly ghost. Some call it Ronald Reagan. Some call it the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. Some call it Star Wars. Call it what you like. It ain’t gonna save your arse all the same.

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North Korea’s Pukguksong-3 SLBM Test: What Insights Might We Draw?

We’ve surely heard by now North Korea tested a new sea launched ballistic missile, the Pukugksong-3 SLBM, on October 2. We’ve also surely heard the working level talks on denuclearisation between the US and North Korea collapsed not long thereafter. Let’s concentrate on the first, for now. A North Korean SLBM test (not necessarily of the Pukguksong-3) was anticipated. There was quite a bit of, very good, satellite image analysis going around in the period prior to it suggesting something was in the works. That was all right on the money.

One of the first things that came to mind when the launch location was roughly pinpointed, and then North Korean state media confirmed the missile tested was the Pukguksong-3, was Kim Jong-un’s August 2017 visit to the Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Science. That was the first time we heard of the Pukguksong-3 (it featured on a poster visible in images released of the visit). I’ll return to this in short order.

Here’s a sample from the satellite image analysis of Jack Liu and Jenny Town at 38North not long before the Pukugksong-3 test (published September 26);

“Imagery from August 26 shows the presence of four vessels berthed at the secure boat basin… [snip]… In imagery from September 23, the cylindrical canister and associated support equipment now appear on the submersible test barge along with support vessels. The canister transport truck and crane are still on the quay. These activities suggest that preparations for a pop-up ejection test are likely underway.”

And there she was

Notice the cold launch

The test was certainly conducted from a submersible test barge, as the above linked article points out, and the Pukguksong-3 note was also cold launched

“This test is routinely done prior to actual missile launches, to ensure that the missile can be ejected at the proper speed and angle before committing to ejection and launch from the submarine.”

What might we say about the missile? What may we say about the submarine to which it might be deployed? What might we say about the test’s strategic implications?

The October 2 test flew on a lofted 910km trajectory and to a 450km range. As David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists quickly pointed out if flown on a standard trajectory the range would have been 1,900km. Initial reports had two missiles being launched, however we know now North Korea tested the single two stage SLBM. As the images above show the Pukguksong-3 is a solid fuel missile, North Korea’s longest range solid propellant missile. The dimensions are of interest, especially the diameter. Unfortunately, the pictures released do not give us a reference frame to conclusively calculate this. Michael Elleman, at 38North, argues from analogy the diameter is likely 1.4-to-1.5 metres

“the Pukguksong-3 is likely to be about 1.4 to 1.5 meters in diameter, and roughly 7.8 to 8.3 meters long, making it similar, if not the same as, the land-based Pukguksong-2, but with a substantially shortened and blunted nose cone. The shorter nose cone was likely adopted to fit the missile into a submarine-launch tube. The US Poseidon and Trident SLBMs and the Chinese JL-2 all employ similar front ends.”


“The Pukguksong-3’s size and configuration is consistent with other SLBM designs. The US Polaris SLBM had a diameter of 1.37 meters, early-French SLBMs were 1.5 meters in diameter and China’s JL-1 was 1.4 meters. The first stage motor of the Pukguksong-3 is roughly two times the size of the second stage motor. This ratio is similar to those found on the US, French and Chinese SLBMs. These similarities are driven by engineering optimization, and not by one country copying another’s design decisions.”

If there’s one thing North Korea’s recent round of missile tests have done, not that it was needed, is they’ve blown the “bluff hypothesis,” in addition to Pyongyang’s missile programme is dependent on foreign expertise, theses both out of the water.

This is where the 2017 Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Science visit by KJU enters the picture. Elleman had a good 38North write up of this at the time. One of the things we saw then was KJU inspecting a solid motor casing made of composite fibres

“The large bronze-colored vessel examined by Kim Jong Un is an advanced, light-weight casing designed to house solid propellant. Its size, roughly 1.4-1.5 meters in diameter, is consistent with North Korea’s two existing solid-fuelled missiles: the submarine-based Pukguksong-1 and the land-based Pukguksong-2.”

The Pukguksong series has been developed from the Soviet 2,400km range R-27 Zyb (liquid propellant) SLBM which had a metal casing.  Furthermore, Elleman writes (of the Pukguksong-3 depicted in the poster),

“Building the Pukguksong-3 using lighter-weight composite motor casings, instead of cases made from metal, should allow the new missile to fly further, though exactly how much further is difficult to determine. If North Korea masters the production processes, maintains a reliable supply chain for the filaments and resins needed to create the cases, and adheres to strict quality control procedures, the Pukguksong-3 might be capable of reaching targets 2,000 km away.”

Which is bang on target with the 1,900km estimate for the Pukguksong-3 based on the October 2 test parameters.  The dimensions are interesting because of another thing KJU (partially) showed off, namely a filament winding machine which is used to wind together the composite material of the missile motor case.

“It is unclear if the machine can produce motor casings larger than a 1.5 meter diameter. If not, North Korea will need to acquire a larger winding machine to produce motor casings large enough to power intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).”

Should the Pukguksong-3 have a maximum diameter greater than 1.5m, then the filament winding machine KJU showed off can produce motor casings larger than 1.5m. The UN Panel of Experts in its latest report stated that, according to the assessment of a member state, North Korea is working on the first stage of a solid propellant ICBM. In which case, yes, North Korea does have a filament winding machine capable of producing missile motor casings greater than 1.5m in diameter.

What about the submarine to house the Pukguksong-3 SLBM? We know, thanks to this exceptionally good analysis from H.I. Sutton at his Covert Shores submarine warfare analysis website, that the submarine KJU recently showed off is an SSB modification to the Romeo class vintage Soviet era diesel submarine. Sutton suggests the sail has been lengthened and heightened to accommodate (at time of the writing) Pukguksong-1 SLBMs (KN-11 US designation) in the aft battery compartment. Most likely, Hutton concludes, this configuration could house two KN-11 SLBMs possibly a maximum of three. Should the Pukguksong-3 be for the SSB Mod Romeo submarine then a 1.4-to-1.5 metre diameter estimate for the missile is consistent with what we know.

There have been reports that North Korea is working on another submarine, the Sinpo-C, larger than the Romeo class Mod, although we have not seen it. A diameter larger than 1.5 metres for the Pukguksong-3 would be consistent with that. The 38North analysis of recent activities at the Sinpo South shipyard, linked above, does suggest submarine construction is underway although whether that’s of the SSB Mod Romeo or the rumoured Sinpo-C is unclear. You’d think the former. One of the questions looked at there is whether a new submarine is due for launch, the 38North report is sceptical of this however analysts at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies argue the satellite images suggest a launch sooner rather than later. I’d argue they’re right about that; too many dots fall neatly into place on this (KJUs submarine construction hall visit, the satellite images of activity at Sinpo South, the PG-3 test).

I suspect something like this. Reports have suggested that the Pukguksong-3 test represents North Korea pushing the envelope on missile technology. I agree, but I suggest we might consider going further. The Pukguksong-3 SLBM test does not push the envelope, instead it understates North Korea’s solid fuel production capabilities. Pyongyang has built itself a solid fuel missile with two composite case motors designed for the SSB Romeo class submarine, but the facilities at the Chemical Materials Institute can do better than that.

Don’t forget when KJU visited the Institute the Pukguksong-3 wasn’t the only missile on display (in poster form, of course). So was the Hwasong-13 (KN-08) ICBM. That we previously knew basically to be a mock up of a liquid propellant ICBM based on the engine technology of the R-27 Zyb. That’s so ancient history now.

Image originally provided by KCNA. This enhancement is due to Nathan Hunt available on his Twitter feed

Note the (possible) three stage configuration above. Solid propelled ICBMs and solid propelled SLBMs of ICBM range are typically designed with three stages whereas liquid propelled ICBMs are typically designed with two.

Reports and commentary of the strategic implications of the Pukguksong-3 divided into two strands. The first, it gives North Korea a first strike capability. North Korea can launch a sneaky, undetected, first strike perhaps even against the United States itself.  The second, North Korea is working on a sea based leg of its strategic rocket forces as it seeks an assured second strike capability. The first can be dismissed whatever one thinks about the survival capability of the SSB mod Romeo submarine in so far as we are talking about the United States. A first strike capability doesn’t necessarily mean striking first undetected it means launching a disarming first strike. What we’re talking about here does not give North Korea that capability vis a vis the US. South Korea and Japan, however, is another matter. Whether intended or not, the (possible) capability alone will be of concern to Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea has a programme to acquire nuclear powered submarines to hunt Pyongyang’s ballistic missile submarines, a combination that adds a new dimension to strategic dynamics on and around the Korean peninsula.

I’m not too flashy on the second. I think this is a bit of mirror imaging. I doubt North Korea wants to build a bunch of submarines so at least one is permanently on deterrence patrol. Mainly because I don’t think Pyongyang would like what that would mean for its ultra centralised system of command and control. I’m more in favour of a third position. I tend to think this capability, whose manifestation is more imminent than many suppose, is part of a nuclear strategy not unlike that of China. I surmise that Pyongyang is developing a sea based version of its, what the Chinese call, “shooting a firecracker outside the front door” operational strategy. Pukguksong-3 SLBMs will surge from port in a crisis and they’re to target the ballistic missile defence systems of the region in particular. In that sense the sea based leg of North Korea’s nuclear forces are for assured deterrence but not quite in the manner usually envisaged. Remember that the KN-11 was initially seen as providing for an all-azimuth attack against South Korea’s THAAD radar. Now South Korea is indeed investing in more radars to address gaps in THAADs coverage, but I suspect that North Korea’s strategy for the Pukguksong-3 is not unlike that previously reputed for the KN-11. The Pukguksong-3, in addition to some of the other capabilities we’ve seen North Korea test in recent times, will present the battle assessment and response system of regional BMD with a complex, multi-facetted, challenge. BMD faces more problems than just the physics of interception.  Recall how initial assessments on October 2 wrongly assumed two missiles were launched. That, I submit, was a good example of how cognitive biases influence information processing and that was during a benign period certainly relative to a full-blown crisis. Reports at the time of the Pukguksong-3 test continued to repeat the canard North Korea does not have an RV capable of striking the mainland United States. That’s wishful thinking. The big story here is that Northeast Asia, and the United States, does not have a BMD system capable of addressing the North Korean challenge.

Of course, this all does pose dilemmas for strategic stability during a crisis on the Korean peninsula. We’ve got ourselves plausible submarine based nuclear escalation scenarios and don’t be thinking that’s years off because North Korea wants to build a nuclear navy with permanent deterrence patrols either.

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt about the North Korean nuclear crisis it’s that our penchant for wishful thinking leads us astray, both analytically and, crucially, regarding policy.

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