On the Official Report of the 5th Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea

The much anticipated 5th plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea has ended, and the official report of the plenary session has been released by KCNA.

I had a write up just after the first day session here and the KCNA reports of the second day’s and third day’s proceedings are available here and here. The mainstream media, but also most commentators and analysts, have focused on the defence and nuclear aspects to the almost complete neglect of the economic aspect. Indeed, you can see after reading the official report that economic considerations were primary for Pyongyang, and the military aspects are intimately connected to those economic considerations and, indeed, flow on from them. I will demonstrate this.

In my post on the first day’s proceedings I had first discussed the economy and then the strategic aspects. That is the order in which the Central Committee plenum proceeded, however the media has things in exact reverse. This is because the fixation with ICBM tests and Christmas gifts reflects our obsessions not theirs. This is quite important, and we shall return to it.

Even when looking at the strategic aspects, so deep is the obsession with missile tests, that a big part of the nuclear story coming out of the 5th plenum was missed. I will demonstrate this too.

I have argued here, and on Twitter, for a long time that we won’t see a return to the dynamic of 2017 until North Korea convened a 5th plenary session of the Central Committee. That analysis has proven to be correct. Since Kim Jong Un ascended Mt Paektu on a white horse in October I have also argued that the exercise evokes the Chollima movement, that it evokes acceleration especially and that not just through dint of hard work. The application of science and high technology to restructuring the industrial base of the economy would also prove to be important. That analysis, I submit, was also correct.  When I first learned that a 5th plenum would be convened I had argued that it would share strong parallels with Mikhail Gorbachev’s first as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in April 1985. That also I hold to be correct. The usage of “restructuring” above is quite deliberate.

I will now expound a little on these themes. I will not cover everything, and this post, despite its length, leaves out certain angles. We’ll get back to some of those when we can. The report, like the plenum itself, was somewhat lengthy.

Before we proceed, we should note that the Central Committee rubber stamped decisions made elsewhere, that is higher up, and to no small degree functioned as a tool of internal and external propaganda. It was about more than this, though. The plenum acted as a type of transmission belt to ensure that directives from the top are disseminated to the wider society and implemented. In that sense it also functioned as an instrument of social control. There was a reshuffle of party and state cadres, including in the Academy of Science, and these are not unusual in political systems such as this after a key plenary meeting of the central Committee.

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

As can be seen in the official report provided by KCNA most of the plenum was devoted to a, very long, report by Kim Jong Un to the participants. I will not use the expression “delegates” because those of us on the Left have an understanding regarding that word, which does not apply in this case. The plenum had a four point agenda, with the first clearly the most important namely that being reporting “on the orientation of our immediate struggle under the present internal and external situation.” Most of Kim Jong Un’s report to the Central Committee appeared to be devoted to this agenda item. According to KCNA Kim reported;

“Let Us Break Through Head-on All the Barriers to Our Advance!”-this is the fighting slogan the entire Party and all the people should uphold today.

Whereupon Kim immediately stated;

The key front in today’s offensive for making a breakthrough head-on is the economic front, he said, setting it forth as an immediate task for the economic field at present to rearrange the economic foundations of the country and tap all the possible production potentials so as to fully meet the demand needed for economic development and people’s life.

As can be seen the key aspect here is “the economic front” and notice the emphasis on the need “to rearrange the economic foundations of the country.” It’s possible to see, supporting one of my contentions above, that the military and strategic aspect is subordinate to this and, in fact, flows on from it. According to the KCNA report;

Kim Jong Un stressed the need to provide a political, diplomatic and military guarantee for our grand offensive for making a breakthrough head-on.

The strategic aspects of the Central Committee plenum are meant to provide sufficient diplomatic and geopolitical space to make good on the restructuring of the productive base of the economy given continued US hostility, according to Kim, which seeks to prevent it. By taking the strategic aspect out of its economic context the media, but also many commentators and analysts, paint a picture that limits understanding and which attributes to Pyongyang a degree of bellicosity greater than is warranted by the facts.

Kim Jong Un reported to the plenum that the North Korean economy and society, much like the Soviet economy which prompted Gorbachev’s reform programmes, faces the problem of stagnation. At one point Kim states that state management and economic work;

is insufficient for pulling and spurring the great cause of self-reliance and self-development and which fails to bring about a bold renovation but stays stagnant.

Further we have;

He set forth the tasks to be tackled by the major industrial sectors of the national economy.

Stressing the need to break through head-on the manifold difficulties and bring about a substantial upsurge in production first in the key industrial sectors, the buttresses of the independent economy, he made an overall analysis of the evil practices and the state of stagnation revealed in the fields of the metal, chemical, electric power, coal-mining, machine-building, building-materials and light industries and rail transport

With regard to rearranging the economic foundations of society Kim certainly emphasises putting production on a more scientific and technological footing, and that involves more than just better application of scientific principles and high technology, but better, more technically oriented, education and more rational management and industrial practices. With regard to the latter Kim made remarks about ideology and the methods of the past worth recording;

Today, when our Republic has gained great strength and is aspiring after normal development in all spheres, there is no need to still cling to the transitional and provisional work methods of the past.


Saying that a revolutionary ideology and spirit should lead the times, but the economic work should be conducted firmly in conformity with the practical conditions, he advanced crucial tasks for finding out a clear-cut way of improving planning to meet the actual requirements

If there’s a tension between ideology and reason these remarks suggest Kim leans more to the side of reason. If in China’s cultural revolution a slogan was better red than expert Kim seemingly sits a tad more toward better expert than red. There’s a contradiction here, however, which we shall revisit.

As if to emphasise all these points North Korea has issued a new stamp marking the entry into 2020.

This is what the stamp is said to signify;

The stamp shows the Korean people’s firm will to hasten the building of a powerful socialist nation through continued vigorous Mallima speed movement by dint of self-reliance and science and technology

Mallima speed is faster than the velocity of the Chollima horse that symbolised the Stakhanovite Chollima movement. In April 1985 Gorbachev introduced his first reform programme in response to stagnation known as “acceleration,” that being the acceleration of production through restructuring the productive base of the economy by means of an industrial revolution occasioned by advances in science and high technology.  There’s certainly more than a passing resemblance here. Gorbachev put an emphasis on agricultural production in April 1985 and so has Kim now;

Noting that the agricultural front is the major thrust area in the offensive for making a breakthrough head-on, he said that the strong wind of increasing crop yields should be raised more fiercely by actively introducing scientific farming methods in the agricultural sector

The Gorbachev of 1985 was not the Gorbachev of 1988 and beyond. His first foray into reform in response to stagnation was relatively conservative. Indeed, the agenda for the 1985 April plenum, “acceleration” through advanced science and high technology, was developed whilst Konstantin Chernenko was still alive and still General Secretary. Acceleration, both then and now, is a way of meeting the problem of stagnation without challenging the traditional hierarchical and authoritarian character of the political and economic system.  

Strategic Nuclear Aspects

To paraphrase Donald Trump they’re a beauty, however we should recognise that they’re couched within a reading of the Singapore process that is not inaccurate, although it does certainly exaggerate the arms control measures North Korea took during that process.  For example, Kim states that Pyongyang shut down, as in (by implication) dismantled, the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. That’s an exaggeration. Kim argues in his report that the Singapore process, for Donald Trump, was driven by domestic political considerations, not unlike the (correct) charge made by liberal analysts and commentators who argued the process was more akin to reality TV than serious diplomacy. That doesn’t prevent liberal opinion from blaming Pyongyang for the collapse in the talks, mind you. Kim states that the US throughout the process has continued to pursue a hostile policy directed at regime change, which is based on squeezing North Korea through graduated pressure using nuclear proliferation as a pretext. At, sometimes extended, times after 1990 that has been the US approach at other times not, for instance during and after the Agreed Framework period of the Clinton administration it wasn’t. I’d argue it has been the basic approach of the Trump administration, for “maximum pressure” never ended even during the Singapore process and in some respects was even tightened. Given this, Kim Jong Un reported to the Central Committee that North Korea is no longer bound by the missile and nuclear testing moratorium adopted, or better still rubber stamped, at the 3rd plenum of the 7th Central Committee. The wording of the KCNA report is important here;

Under such circumstances, the DPRK has found no grounds to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitment with no other party to honour, and this has put a damper on its efforts for disarmament and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons across the world, he said.

Recall that the 3rd plenum did more than announce a testing moratorium. It also resolved that North Korea would not proliferate nuclear and missile know how, technology and materials. Note the reference above to the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and Pyongyang’s adherence to it. That was missed by many given the obsession with testing.

Kim Jong Un also confirmed what was stated after the second December static hot test of a liquid propellant engine at Sohae, namely that North Korea has a new strategic nuclear weapon but, additionally, Kim announced it will be tested soon. This is stated explicitly with no ifs and buts for according to the official report Kim;

confirmed that the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.

The media has reported that Kim’s testing of that new weapon is conditional upon subsequent US actions, leaving the door open to diplomacy despite the end of Kim’s new year deadline for talks to bear fruit. Here is the relevant passage;

He said that we will reliably maintain the constant readiness for action of the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the US nuclear threat and guaranteeing our long-term security, and that the scope and depth of the buildup of the deterrent will properly be coordinated depending on the future approach of the US to the DPRK.

Now we further have;

the DPRK will steadily develop indispensable and prerequisite strategic weapons for national security until the US rolls back its hostile policy and a lasting and durable peace mechanism is in place.

It’s quite possible that the new strategic weapon is a new or modified liquid propellant ICBM. But that’s not the be all and end all of the strategic nuclear programme. The first, and its flight testing, is already in the bag, but the scope and depth of the second i.e. new strategic weapons after whatever awaits us around the corner, will depend on subsequent US actions. That’s one way of interpreting the report, and I lean toward this interpretation.  

Denuclearisation Is Not Dismantlement

One of the things missed, because of the attention given to testing, was what seems to me a pretty clear statement from Kim that denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, for Pyongyang, has little to do with dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme, that is the complete, verified, irreversible dismantlement of CVID fame sanctions relief or no sanctions relief. Here are the relevant points made by Kim to which I refer the reader.

First, Kim uses the expression “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” and that in the context of the requirement for the US to reverse its hostile policy;

that if the US persists in its policy hostile towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula

Earlier on, when speaking of North Korea’s defence science and industrial base and its achievements Kim also states;

Such a leap forward in developing the state-of-the-art national defence science would make our great military and technical strength irreversible

Which is not consistent with dismantlement. Here Kim says, fairly clearly it seems to me, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, in so far as North Korea understands it, is not comprehensive and irreversible dismantlement.

The question we have to answer is; do we want to accept that formulation?

A Contradiction?

Before concluding with that question I’d like to just make a few remarks about the contradiction I wrote of earlier. We saw that Kim has called for a more rational, technocratic, approach to the economy, state and party management, education, and public health. At the end of his report to the Central Committee we see references to what Xi Jinping might call red culture.

For example;

He tabled the issues of conducting an intensive party-wide, nationwide and society-wide struggle against anti-socialist and non-socialist deeds and strengthening the work of the working people’s organizations and tightening the moral discipline throughout society.

On the one hand Kim calls for new work methods, for less ideology, greater rationality and a commitment to pragmatism but here he stresses an ideological campaign against anti socialist and non socialist deeds. This seems like a contradiction, and how this plays out will be an important part of the North Korean story. A new class of technocratic cadres less given to ideology and more given to reason could turn North Korea into a different direction, not unlike what happened in China. Even here there are parallels to the Gorbachev of 1985. At the time Gorbachev was waging an, unpopular, campaign against alcoholism a type of “tightening the moral discipline throughout society” if you will.

Well, in 1941…

Kim stated that subsequent US actions will determine the scope and depth of North Korea’s strategic programmes. So, the question we in the West are confronted with is; should we accept a deal that constrains the depth and scope of that programme whilst putting into place mutual measures aimed toward achieving strategic stability?

This is where sanctions loom large. Kim stated that the seven decades long confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington has boiled down to self reliance versus sanctions. When you read the entire report you get the impression that North Korea’s current internal and external situation is a difficult one, but Kim demands that North Korea should not be passive and just let things slide. North Korea must be proactive, it must shape its future and that means not allowing itself to succumb to US pressure and the tendencies toward internal stagnation. Inertia, domestically and externally, is verboten. In a nutshell Kim Jong Un is telling us he is not Saddam Hussein. He will not passively accept a situation where North Korean capabilities degrade over time because of sanctions and military pressure so becoming easy pickings for Washington at some later date. That’s implicit in his summing up of the plenum at the end of the report;

He clarified that the basic idea, the basic spirit of the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK is to conduct the offensive for frontal breakthrough, not to wait for the situation to turn better.

More toward the beginning we have;

Such a leap forward in developing the state-of-the-art national defence science would make our great military and technical strength irreversible, greatly promote the increase of our national strength, improve our power of putting the political situation around us under control and give the enemies the blow of serious uneasiness and horror.

Kim Jong Un has put us on notice. He will not accept North Korea’s indefinite, and graduated, strangulation through economic and military means. North Korea will fight back, and in the fighting back there exists the potential for things to get out of control i.e. up to and including nuclear war. In 2017 a highly knowledgeable and perceptive Japanese economist, Mitsuhiro Mimura, who specialises on the North Korean economy was asked, in an interview with 38North conducted by Jeff Baron, what would happen should North Korea be sanctioned indefinitely and should those sanctions (and military actions) escalate to “maximum pressure 2.0.” as some are now demanding.

This is the exchange;

JB: Speaking of sanctions, what if the international sanctions aimed at forcing the regime to give up nuclear weapons and missiles really squeezed North Korea, cutting off fuel and trade, depriving it of the minimum it needed to survive?

MM: Well, in 1941…

By 1941 Mimura meant Pearl Harbour.

My own view is that the rational approach at this juncture would be to accept a situation short of disarmament and to fashion a condition of strategic stability and détente, which would enable North and South Korea to pursue peace and rapprochement and that with our support. What would happen in North Korea under such circumstances is very hard to fathom, but perhaps Kim Jong Un understands that North Korea’s situation is irrational. Perhaps he understands that “we cannot go on living like this,” to paraphrase Gorbachev, but he needs a soft landing as it were. Like Saddam Hussein needed a diplomatic and political soft landing to reverse course after his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. I doubt that Washington will provide him one. For Washington nothing matters more than its power and prestige as global hegemon, something that outranks even survival as Washington has demonstrated many times before. What would happen if there were to be an excess of democracy in the United States in 2020?

Well, in 1989…

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The First Day Session of the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

The 5th Plenary session of the Central Committee of the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea is now in session. The plenum was convened earlier in the month by the Presidium of the Political Bureau, equivalent in hierarchy to the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China.  North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, reports that the 5th plenum on Saturday began the first day of its deliberations. My understanding is that the 3rd and 4th plenums of the 7th Central Committee met for just the one day. The 3rd plenum, convened just before the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, rubber stamped the end of the byungjin line policy, so that puts the multiday nature of this plenum into context. This is an indication of the importance attached to this plenary session. The Central Committee plenum was preceded by an enlarged emergency meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Party, and a major propaganda campaign. For discussion of these (and more) see my last post here.

We know little about the 5th plenum bar what we can glean from the KCNA statement. So, let us seek to interpret some of its passages. The Central Committee meeting is being accompanied by a number of observers from state ministries and state institutions and “chairpersons of the provincial people’s committees, chairpersons of the provincial rural economy committees, chairpersons of the city and county party committees and officials of major fields and units and the armed forces organs.” Note the presence of senior commanders of the Korean People’s Army including “major fields” of the KPA. The KCNA report does not mention the presence of officials from fraternal parties, especially from the Communist Party of China. The WPK may send a report on its deliberations and decisions through a Party delegation to Beijing subsequent to the meeting closing.

The KCNA carries a brief account of why the plenum was convened, although a little more detailed than the report earlier in the month which announced the decision of the Presidium of the Political Bureau;

The WPK convened the plenary meeting in order to overcome the manifold and harsh trials and difficulties and further accelerate the development of the revolution with transparent anti-imperialist independent stand and firm will and to discuss important matters arising in the party building and activities and in the building of the state and national defence.

This gives is something to work with. Let us focus on three words here, namely “accelerate,” “transparent,” and independent” When Kim Jong Un first ascended Mount Paektu on a white horse this year I had stated here (and on Twitter) this could mean, should it prefigure some policy shift, that Pyongyang might adopt a policy of “acceleration.” The white horse could have been construed as channelling the Chollima Movement, a Stakhanovite movement emphasising accelerated development which had a mythical horse as its propaganda centrepiece.

We know Kim Jong Un has put a lot of store on science and technology transforming the productive base of the economy.  Mikhail Gorbachev presided over his first Central Committee plenum as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in April 1985. At that April 1985 plenum Gorbachev introduced his first reform programme which he called “uskoreniye” or “acceleration.” To be sure Gorbachev made mention of “perestroika” and “glasnost” but those came to enjoy greater emphasis later. Here the emphasis was on acceleration, and that in interesting terms. In his report to the plenum Gorbachev stated “the party advances the cardinal acceleration of scientific-technical progress to the forefront as the main strategic lever for the intensification of the national economy, for the optimal utilization of the party’s cumulative potential.” The emphasis on acceleration that can be found in the KCNA statement on the deliberations of the 5th plenum may prefigure something not too dissimilar.

Russia still struggles with “uskoreniye,” for it is not an economy based on high tech and high valued added manufacturing production. Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Medvedev (he emphasised high technology industry), and, of course, Putin have failed to achieve “uskoreniye.” The more radical perestroika and glasnost was inspired by the early failure of “uskoreniye” and the perceived requirement that an acceleration of scientific and technological progress required democratisation, openness, and a free market economy. China is now embarking on an effort to change its growth model from one less based on being the world’s assembly plant to one more based on high technology, high value added industrial production. Should China succeed then the Russian supposition that scientific and technological progress sufficient for the transformation of the productive base of the economy requires neoliberal free markets and democratisation would be proven wrong.

You need only guess what the leadership in Pyongyang thinks about the matter. The key problem faced by the North Korean economy at the moment, sanctions aside, is what Pyongyang calls “the energy problem.” It will be interesting to see what North Korea does in 2020 on the nuclear energy front. What “acceleration” would entail in terms of nitty, gritty specifics requires further information. A brief KCNA statement does not provide that further information. Korea Central Television tonight, following a brief report on the 5th plenum, did feature the following image of a computer numerically controlled machine tool, which is consistent with our hypothesis.

The bit about “transparency” is highly significant. This goes right to the heart of Ri Thae Song’s, Vice Foreign Minister for US Affairs, famous or infamous “Christmas gift” statement.  As I have argued throughout December here, and on Twitter, the Christmas gift was not the key aspect of that statement. Rather it was Ri’s saying that North Korea’s nuclear and defence programme would be open and transparent given the collapse of denuclearisation diplomacy with Washington. This is what Ri said;

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.

Now look at the key part of the KCNA report on the first day of the 5th plenum; “with transparent anti imperialist independent stand.” Ri’s statement clearly implies that North Korea’s bomb is coming out of the basement, the two static hot tests of a large liquid propelled engine at Sohae for a new strategic weapon backed those words with deeds, and this part of the KCNA report on the first day of the 5th plenum is a direct reference to this. North Korea considers that denuclearisation talks have failed and that it will accelerate its nuclear programme out in the open as it were. This, presumably, will mean flight tests of missiles including long range IRBMs and ICBMs and also nuclear weapons tests in future perhaps the near future.  Pyongyang anticipates that this will not go down lightly in Washington and could lead to a crisis. North Korea is evidently preparing for this likely eventuality.

The “independent” is also of no small significance. That likely means North Korea understands there will be no sanctions relief and so therefore Kim Jong Un’s “new way” is basically “our way.” Kim Jong Un, in his 2019 new year address, stated that should the denuclearisation process collapse, so providing little to no prospect for sanctions relief, North Korea would proceed along a “new way.” That new way was not further specified. North Korea must pursue an independent path toward acceleration and that will come with an anti imperialist stance. That could mean a number of things, perhaps a turn toward Moscow and Beijing and away from Seoul and Washington. We cannot be certain at this stage. At the outer edge of the possible it could mean North Korea considers its nuclear and missile technology to be an export item to be traded for access to high technology capital products. North Korea, like, has a bit of a comparative advantage now in these technologies. Recall that the 3rd plenum of the 7th Central Committee stated that Pyongyang would not proliferate that technology through export. An active stance against the global nonproliferation regime is not inconsistent with the KCNA statement as that regime is considered by Pyongyang to be a form of imperialism.

The first day appears to have been devoted to a report to the Central Committee from Kim Jong Un. The KCNA statement appears to have been written as that report was ongoing. Hopefully we might land ourselves a transcript. We surely shall have reason to post some more regarding the 5th plenary session of the 7th Central Committee in the coming days.

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Nuke Tide at Yule Tide: Economic Sanctions, Denuclearisation Diplomacy, March 16 Factory, An Action Packed Christmas For All Things North Korea.

Christmas has come and gone, and alas no Christmas gift from North Korea. That despite a veritable orgy of press coverage in the month of December devoted to its prospect. What got little attention, by contrast, was something far more important. That’s developments on the sanctions front, but these were ignored, and are being actively erased from history, because they run counter to the dominant narrative assiduously being built by our own propaganda systems.

We begin by looking at these developments, and we’ll come to the Christmas gift by way of conclusion. These aren’t the only things that happened in December, we even saw the return of John Bolton, but we’ll focus on the big ticket items excluding the engine tests at Sohae having examined those previously. Let’s take each in turn.

Sanctions and the Diplomatic Record

A report today in The Los Angeles Times, which evidently functions not just as a news report but as a report reflecting, and desiring the establishing, of received history, states that;

Stephen Biegun, the chief U.S. negotiator, during a visit to South Korea this month urged North Korea to “seize this moment,” calling it a “window of opportunity.” “We are here and you know how to reach us,” he said — a plea that fell on deaf ears

Further, regarding the diplomatic record in 2018 and especially following the recent collapse of the working level talks in Sweden (agreed to at the Panmunjom meeting between Kim and Trump), we have;

Each time, when U.S. negotiators tried to follow up to talk specifics, they said they were rebuffed

This is a fairly standard rendition of the diplomatic record. I have seen comments such as these being made time and again in December, with an increased tempo as Christmas approached and, moreover, as Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline fast approaches. What’s noteworthy here is that a cursory glance at the diplomatic record, even when just restricting ourselves to the month of December, shows it to be patently false. In a highly significant, because most revealing, but barely reported, move Russia and China presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council on December 16 calling for partial sanctions relief for North Korea, that is from sanctions targeting the North Korean civil economy.

According to a Reuters report, Reuters is of course a newswire, Russia and China specifically proposed;

The U.N. Security Council lift a ban on North Korea exporting statues, seafood and textiles, according to a draft resolution seen by Reuters, in a move Russia said is aimed at encouraging talks between Washington and Pyongyang


The draft also called for a ban to be lifted on North Koreans working abroad and the termination of a 2017 requirement for all such workers to be repatriated by next week. The draft would also exempt inter-Korean rail and road cooperation projects from U.N. sanctions

The United States effectively blocked this, claiming North Korea is not willing to take concrete steps toward the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as agreed to at Singapore. We know that’s false. North Korea’s position has been consistent since the September 2018 Pyongyang Summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in. Partial sanctions relief for dismantling the nuclear weapons related facilities at Yongbyon. After the Hanoi Summit earlier this year we knew which UN sanctions North Korea sought to be suspended, namely those put in place in 2016 and thereafter. These roughly accord with the sanctions Russia and China proposed be suspended in the December 16 draft.

This is very important, because essentially it means Russia and China put before the UN Security Council this month, as Kim’s deadline loomed, the deal proposed by North Korea at the Hanoi Summit and the United States, once again, rejected it outright.  The media, basically, have ignored this highly significant and most revealing development, choosing instead to focus on phantom Christmas gifts and repeating, with an increased crescendo, tales of North Korean perfidy. To be sure US officials, especially Stephen Biegun and the US Representative to the UN Security Council, Kelly Craft, have made statements about being open to dialogue, about being open to a step-by-step reciprocal process of diplomacy, but Washington’s deeds at the UN Security Council in December put the lie to those words. That didn’t stop the media from quoting US officials uncritically as they condemned North Korea for its intransigence. The situation was neatly summed up, again written uncritically, in this beauty of a sentence, from Reuters, that everybody following North Korea should file away for future reference;

The United States has said it is opposed to any sanctions relief at the moment, but has also said it is willing to be flexible in discussions.

It takes a PhD in political science and a comfy sinecure at a foreign policy think tank not to notice the obvious contradiction, one readily discernible to any literate twelve year old.

But the situation is worse still, more revealing still. According to an NK News report this week;

President Donald Trump is set to sign a new wave of North Korea sanctions into law on Friday night in Washington..

The sanctions target Pyongyang’s coal, iron, textile, and seafood industries, along with certain banks that do business with the DPRK. They also aim to help governments around the world enforce existing UN sanctions, and seek to put pressure on countries that don’t do enough to enforce them

Notice the reference to seafood and textiles, precisely the sanctions mentioned in the draft UN resolution drawn up by Russia and China. These, of course, are part of the sanctions North Korea asked to be waived in exchange for Yongbyon at Hanoi. Consider also the secondary sanctions. Further, this week the demand that all North Korean workers working abroad be repatriated back to North Korea came into effect. Washington has not just blocked sanctions relief in December, it has acted to put the squeeze on further. Yet the references to this in the media have been miniscule, certainly as compared to the Christmas gift.

There isn’t any doubt that December saw an acceleration in the propaganda campaign being waged by our propaganda system against North Korea. That propaganda is aimed at blaming Pyongyang for the impasse in denuclearisation diplomacy, yet the record, even when just limited to the month of December, suggests a very different picture. Doubtless this propaganda campaign is considered by analysts in North Korea to be reflective of no change in what they regard to be Washington’s hostile policy, that is to say a policy of regime change through graduated pressure using concerns about nuclear proliferation as a pretext. I suspect an important reason behind this propaganda campaign is a bit more prosaic. The natural human tendency is to support the underdog, not the overbearing bully, and the propaganda system has to work hard to make out the global colossus as victim in this case.

Another important development, directly related to this, was the making of the following statement by China’s Minister for Foreign Affairs;

“China calls on US to take concrete steps asap to deliver what has been agreed in Singapore. We encourage DPRK & US to work out a feasible roadmap for establishing a permanent peace regime & realizing complete denuclearization on the Peninsula”

China sees Washington as the stumbling block preventing diplomatic progress, which may very well colour its attitudes and actions in 2020.

Notice that the sanctions bill passed by Congress was named after Otto Warmbier. According to Andrew Barr, the key congressional sponsor of the bill (cited in the NK News report linked above),

Warmbier is on the minds of many members of Congress whenever North Korea comes up.

“The memory of Otto Warmbier is what motivates us in Congress to be very, very forceful in our views with respect to the Kim regime,” he said.

That, of course, isn’t true but let us take it literally for a minute. When taken literally that means Congress is prepared to risk a nuclear war, which would kill millions and end Korean civilisation, on account of one dead American. I challenge you to find any parallel in all of human history.

The Third Emergency Meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea

The Central Military Commission of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held it its third emergency meeting in December. The meeting was an enlarged meeting, of some 80 participants (they’re not usually this large as the CMC is an exclusive club like its equivalent in China). The meeting was widely interpreted as preparation for the Fifth Plenum of the Seventh Central Committee, which has been convened by the Presidium of the Politburo for late December. This is where we see their propaganda system in overdrive. As this Plenum approaches, one called in haste (it appears) and for late December (both unprecedented), the North Korean propaganda system has also gone into high gear. We saw Kim himself again ascend Mount Paektu, accompanied by the senior commanders of the Korean Peoples’ Army, and he has been followed by a number of Party and youth delegations all prominently featured in North Korean media. There have been a number of reports in the North Korean press extolling the people, especially the young, to bear any burden and to pay any price for the revolution and socialist construction. This, I would argue, is all preparing North Koreans for the Fifth Plenum, and the unveiling of the policy already formulated which the Plenum will basically rubber stamp. The Plenum appears to be the apogee of this propaganda campaign, and thus far the campaign has had a pronounced martial tendency to it. One report had a very interesting line.  It called for North Koreans to tighten their belts in sacrifice. Now one might remember that Kim Jong Un, early into his rule, promised his people that they would never have to tighten their belts again. That puts the campaign waged by the North Korean propaganda system into context, for the leadership appears to be preparing North Koreans for a hard and bumpy ride in 2020 and is calling for unity and discipline as it does so.

Not much different to what our propaganda system is doing by the way, even though we live in relatively open societies and yet laugh ourselves silly when observing their propaganda at work.

As someone born in, nominally, socialist Yugoslavia I paint a picture through analogy. In Tito’s Yugoslavia there was a sacred place not unlike Mount Paektu. That was Tito’s “Pecina” or cave, his Drvar headquarters during the people’s liberation war against the fascist occupier. What’s happening in North Korea is something like this. It’s the 1970s and Tito is concerned, given the Brezhnev Doctrine and following Dubcek in Prague, that Yugoslavia is next in line. He knows this threat requires the people to be mobilised and to be prepared for sacrifice and privation. The Partisan generation has aged, but he recalls their spirit and reminds the new generation of their sacrifice by paying a highly symbolic visit to the Pecina at Drvar. This would have been no different to the role Mount Paektu is playing in North Korea’s current propaganda campaign. Rather than laughing we should seek understanding.

The Third Emergency meeting did make concrete decisions, according to the KCNA report detailing its deliberations, and for further particulars I draw the reader to the report. The meeting was more than a propaganda exercise alone.

March 16 Automotive Factory Satellite Images Indicate an Enhancement to North Korean Missile Production Capabilities.

We have also seen some interesting reports, also just very recently, of what appears to be an enhancement of North Korea’s missile production facilities. In this case we are referring to North Korea’s ability to produce Transport Erector Launchers for its missiles, most especially its longer range missiles including ICBMs. This angle reminds us of the stakes occasioned by the current diplomatic impasse, and why accepting North Korea’s Hanoi offer would be a reasonable thing to do.

In February 2018 Pyongyang marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army with a, subdued, military parade. The main talking point of that parade was the semi-trailer trucks used to parade the Hwasong-14 ICBM. This suggested that North Korea had an important limitation in its long range missile programme, namely the production of large TELs for its ICBMs. According to a report in Japanese media;

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un around February last year ordered the mass production of vehicles used for transporting and launching missiles including intercontinental ballistic missiles, Kyodo News has learned.

The report cites a figure of 70 TELs having been manufactured in total following an enhancement of the North’s production capabilities. Furthermore;

U.S. intelligence officials who have acquired the same intelligence appear to be working to find out how many of the 70 TELs are intended for carrying ICBMs and how far their assembly has progressed.

We cannot be certain of the veracity of this report, but it does tally with analysis of satellite images, obtained by Planet Labs, of the March 16 Automotive Factory, which, in part, manufactures TELs. The analysis was conducted by researchers at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and reported extensively by NBC News. The really TELling (lame I know) part of that analysis had to do with the appearance of a temporary structure at the factory that we know is related to Pyongyang’s missile programme;

Commercial satellite images from Planet Labs show a temporary structure at the site to accommodate the raising of a launcher arm, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“We believe North Korea erects this structure when the facility is involved in producing or modifying ICBM launchers,” Lewis concluded in a written analysis, using the acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The importance of this can be gleaned from an August 2017 article on the structure by the lead researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, Jeffrey Lewis, for the Daily Beast;

We’ve seen a building like that once before—at another factory for building missile launchers. It is a covered area that allows North Korean workers to attach the arm that lifts the missile and raise it up. These vehicles, called transporter-erector-launchers, do two important things: They transport the missile horizontally and then use a big arm to erect it vertically. If you build one of these vehicles inside, you need a tall ceiling to make sure the arm works.

That’s the structure that has recently reappeared at the March 16 Automotive Factory. But there’s more involved here than the reappearance of this structure.  Crucially, as per the NBC Report;

Kim appears to have visited part of the facility a third time in June 2019, Lewis says, and commercial imagery taken by Planet Labs shows that North Korea began expanding the site shortly after that visit. Among the additions was a new building that is connected to the one where Kim witnessed preparations for the Hwasong-15 launch in 2017.

That new building means North Korea has, it appears, expanded the production capabilities of the plant, which further means Pyongyang has augmented its capacity to produce TELs thus addressing a limitation in its nuclear weapons programme brought to relief in the February 2018 parade.

This, it would appear, applies across the board. As Lewis is quoted by NBC;

“There is activity at a number of locations indicating that North Korea is laying the groundwork for an expansion of their ICBM program — more systems, more buildings, more capabilities.”

That is surely correct.

Now following the second static hot test of a liquid propelled engine at Sohae this month the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army announced a policy of strategic parity. More systems, more buildings, more capabilities, is certainly consistent with a policy of strategic parity. But what would such a strategy entail? Here we are less certain, but I’ve argued that the possibility North Korea is developing a new ICBM for delivering a megatonne class, high yield, thermonuclear weapon for delivery to the United States cannot be excluded and should not be excluded a priori.

North Korea is credited with having a military strategy, with its strategic rocket forces playing an important role, designed to prevent the United States from massing its forces, as reinforcement from regional and homeland bases, in theatre in the event of a second Korean war. What strategic parity might entail is a strategy of assured destruction. North Korea may be seeking a capability to acquire what in cold war parlance was termed mutually assured destruction or MAD, regarded as the capability to strike a sufficient number of urban-industrial targets consistent with existential risk. This leads to the natural question for planners in Pyongyang, Alain Einthoven’s question, namely “how much is enough?”

Remember that Moscow and Washington’s arsenals during the cold war, as now, represented overkill i.e. they went well beyond the requirements of assured destruction. During the cold war assured destruction, though presented in scientific and mathematical terms, was an ideological justification for the arms programmes of the 1960s. It was defined as possessing the capability to destroy 50% of the urban-industrial basis of a society and against the United States, at the time, it was calculated that possession of 220-250 one megatonne nuclear warheads was sufficient. For North Korea manufacturing 220-250 one megatonne warheads would require a significant expansion in its nuclear programme and its underlying industrial basis. An important current limitation, so far as we know, is North Korea’s plutonium production facilities. However, 70 TELs represents no mean feat even if all of those are not ICBM related.

US presidents, not just Donald Trump, have a record of threatening North Korea with obliteration. Those threats have been backed up by a very real capability. Hitherto the assumption has been that North Korea can hit the US hard but not so hard that US society cannot readily recover and endure. Hence Trump’s well known refrain about his button being bigger than Kim’s. History may well record that Trump’s rhetoric regarding big buttons and fire and fury formed the catalyst for Kim’s pursuing strategic parity through assured destruction.

The March 16 Factory evidence, like evidence similar to it, can be parsed in two ways. One way is the way I would argue it should be parsed. The other way is in how it has been parsed. The first is that, by underscoring the stakes involved, which consist in a dangerous combination of continued expansion of Pyongyang’s capabilities and strategic instability, the empirical evidence suggests that the rational course of action now is to accept Kim’s Hanoi offer, so placing limits on his nuclear programme while simultaneously fashioning strategic stability. The second way, the way it has been parsed, is that what we see emerging in North Korea stands as good evidence supporting the rejection of diplomacy, at best, and a renewed escalation of “maximum pressure,” at worst.

Is North Korea seeking strategic parity through assured destruction? Is North Korea up to building such a capability? It would be good and reasonable for us to act through meaningful diplomacy such that we don’t come to see affirmative answers to such questions.

Back to the Christmas Gift

Which brings us back to the Christmas gift. I have argued here, but also on social media, that the most important part of the KCNA report of the remarks made by Ri Thae Song, the North’s Vice Foreign Minister in Charge of U.S. Affairs, where the Christmas gift statement was made, was in fact Ri’s saying, given the failure of the Singapore process, that North Korea would be transparent and open “from now on.” That effectively brings the bomb out of the basement, where it has been since early 2018. Everything we’ve seen since tallies with that statement, little with the Christmas gift. Yet the media and commentators have engaged in an extended orgy regarding the Christmas gift.

What we see here is a case example of how North Korea is reported by the mainstream media. Pyongyang’s missile tests are seen as “provocations” as a type of “signalling” meant to communicate to Washington some message or to place domestic political pressure upon Donald Trump. A Christmas gift ICBM test was to be the biggest signal of them all.  Those who spent all of December sprouting “Christmas gift” ad nauseum, especially on Twitter, now are like; “what the Christmas gift really meant was.” Monday night quarterbacks. There’s nothing for North Korea to signal. It’s message since the Pyongyang Summit has been clear enough.

Barring some last minute intervention, North Korea will engage, out in the open as it were, in further research and development supportive of its strategic policy and defence priorities. These will be constrained by scientific, engineering, and industrial considerations and its testing programme, both missile and nuclear, will be driven by technical concerns with the timing of its tests, at times, being reflective of politics and the need to demonstrate resolve. But in substance the tests will have a technical core to them. It’s our obsession with North Korea’s testing programme that will turn those tests into crises not their hankering for provocation. The North’s UN representative recently made an interesting statement, after Pyongyang was referred to the Security Council following its last test of the KN-25 tactical guided missile system. He said that the Western powers would refer to North Korea to the UN even should it test a machine gun. That’s quite similar to Osama bin Laden, during the height of the “war on terror,” saying all he had to do to set a US expeditionary force to the Middle East was wave a white rag with “al Qaeda” written on it. The comment, then and now, demonstrates the domestic political climate of the times. Something, certainly then and perhaps now, to be exploited. We have here the makings of a self fulfilling prophecy.

That’s not to say that there weren’t “provocations” by way of missile testing in December. This month the US flight tested a prototype intermediate range missile of the type banned by the INF Treaty, which it withdrew from unilaterally citing an alleged material breach of the Treaty by Russia. The missile booster consisted of a Castor 4 solid rocket motor, used in space launch vehicles. The Castor 4 motor was doubtless chosen on account of the speed with which it could be used to configure, and flight test an IRBM. But why speed, exactly? The test was designed to establish “facts on the ground,” as it were, making a future return to the INF Treaty difficult despite congressional, and international, attempts to prevent an irreversible rapture from the Treaty. That’s, if you will, provocation via missile test. Even, you might say, a type of “signalling” in this case a missile test signalling to all and sundry that the INF Treaty is dead and buried. No security or strategic consideration mandated taking out of the stockpile a Castor 4 solid rocket motor for so hasty an IRBM flight test.

One interesting news item, just before Christmas, was the dispatching by the United States of four “spy planes,” with a suite of sensors to gain detailed and comprehensive data on a North Korean ICBM flight test. These were an RC-135W Rivet Joint, E-8C, RQ-4 Global Hawk and RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft. These were reported as flying “over” North Korea, an error, but one that invites some questions. How close did they get? How close is too close for North Korea? Will the US deploy these aircraft in the future event of indications of an ICBM test? Will North Korea seek to contest this?

In these questions can be found the possibility of a crisis over North Korea’s missile testing to escalate sharply. Any such escalation, to no small degree, would be a function of our obsession with “provocations” and “signalling.” That obsession stems from considerations of power. Should the perception be that some puny state is signalling resolve and toughness to the global hegemon then the global hegemon has to respond in a way reminding all who is boss. The obsession is in reality a form of self obsession, an obsession with our own power and how our power is perceived by others.

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North Korea Convenes the 5th Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK and the Return of Tension to the Korean Peninsula

North Korea this weekend has conducted another test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. A separate post is devoted to that topic. I’ve been wanting to post about the up coming plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea and the politics of denuclearisation occasioned by its announcement, however the testing at Sohae has well and truly diverted my attention.

5th Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK

On December 4 KCNA announced that the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Pyongyang’s version of the CCP’s Standing Politburo Committee, had decided to convene the 5th plenary session of the Central Committee of the 7th Congress for late December. The stated purpose of the 5th plenum is “to discuss and decide on crucial issues in line with the needs of the development of the Korean revolution and the changed situation at home and abroad.”

In the early days of Russian social democracy the central committee of the party was the key decision making body, and its meetings were characterised by robust debate. Just before the Bolshevik seizure of power the Politburo was secretly created as an insurrectionary directorate, contrary to party statute, however the prerogatives of the central committee were soon restored. As the dictatorship firmed the Politburo became the apex of power, and soon enough that apex was invested in a single figure, and the Central Committee did little more than ratify the reports and decisions of the party’s leaders. All of this was predicted in advance by Anarchists and Left Marxists. One of the last policy controversies, where there was real debate, proved revealing, that is the trade unions controversy where Trotsky, for instance, argued for a strict top-down military regime in the workplace. Basically, that is what was instituted, and it became clear, not that there should have been any doubt on this score earlier, that the Bolshevik revolution was in fact a counter revolution leading to the formation of a state capitalist society. One of the features of Stalinism is the toothless tiger like character of the Central Committee. This is a feature shared by so called socialist states that were not considered Stalinist, for instance Tito’s Yugoslavia. In 1972 Tito purged the League of Communists of Serbia of the so called “Serbian liberals” (his phrase) the leader of which, Marko Nikezic, was pursuing a policy of what might best be described as Glasnost. Nikezic is known as the only man who had the numbers against Tito, as he had the support of the Central Committee of the LCS, but he choose not to use them. This is a small, though important, indication of the essentially Stalinist character of nominally socialist Yugoslavia. However, key turning points were associated with Central Committee meetings for reasons to be soon made evident.

I digress, of course. The point here is pretty simple. The 5th plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK will hear and ratify the reports of the party leadership and will simply rubber stamp whatever decision the Presidium of the Politburo has decided in advance. Odd as its sounds, but in North Korea this is a type of reform. During the period of high Stalinism the Generalissimo, like Stalin, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, didn’t bother themselves with party meetings too much. The 6th Congress of the WPK was in 1980. The 7th was convened by Kim Jong Un in 2016. There was, however, in between these congresses a party Conference the WPK’s third. A Conference in the ruling parties of the nominally socialist states was actually the highest, on paper, decision making forum more fundamental than a Congress however conferences were reserved for rare and special occasions. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev convened a Conference at the height of the travails of Perestroika. He wanted to demonstrate that Perestroika had the broad support of the Party, especially given the fissures at the top that had by then publicly come to the surface. The third Conference of the WPK was convened by Kim Jong Il not long before his passing to anoint Kim Jong Un as his successor. The motive was no different to Gorbachev’s, i.e. a demonstration of broad party support. The 5th plenum of the 7th Central Committee will mostly be an exercise in propaganda for both domestic and external audiences. Domestically it will seek to demonstrate the single minded support of the WPK for whatever decision the Politburo has made beforehand.

In the context of denuclearisation I have long argued that we won’t see a return to 2017 until we first have another Central Committee plenum. Kim Jong Un, unlike Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, has convened regular meetings of the party as per party statute. The moratorium on long range missile and nuclear testing was formally ratified at the 3rd plenum of the 7th Central Committee in April 2018, as was the end of the Byungjin line policy of which this moratorium was a manifestation. Not long after the Hanoi Summit this year the 4th plenum was convened, and it ratified the remarks made by Kim Jong Un in his 2019 new year address. Namely, absent a more rational approach to denuclearisation from the United States by the end of the year, Pyongyang will pursue an unspecified “new way.” Now that the end of year deadline has come, with no change in US approach, the 5th plenum has been convened and the new way will be announced and rubber stamped by the Central Committee. Most analysts have ignored this sequence, and so they could not see that a Central Committee meeting would be convened prior to the real fireworks. They, rather, were too focused on “signalling” by way of ICBM testing before Kim’s deadline.

I had always thought this is how matters would proceed. See for example my analysis (April 2019) in this post here

The sequential, and thus far regular, meetings of the Central Committee and the Supreme People’s Assembly since the 7th Congress are a type of reform that might bear fruit in future…

Note the formulation of a return to the “original state,” likely a reference to the 2017 standoff what Scott Sagan referred to as “the Korean missile crisis.” Pyongyang has stated that it will wait for the US to change its “attitude” to the talks, that is to accept its reciprocal step-by-step formulation. North Korea is saying that it will wait a year for Washington to blink. In a year’s time, of course, the 5th plenum of the current Central Committee will meet…

Kim Jong Un’s Second Ascent to the Summit of Mount Paektu

The announcement of the convening of the 5th plenum didn’t attract much attention, however Kim Jong Un’s second ascent a top Mount Paektu on a white horse, at exactly the same time, ended up taking all the limelight. The second ascent had a decided martial aspect to it. The accompanying KCNA report often alluded to military themes, and this time Kim Jong Un was accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff and the Corps commanders of the Korean Peoples Army. These are the men entrusted with implementing the strategic direction of a second Korean war. Subsequent to this there have been numerous references to Mount Paektu and the guerrilla tradition in the North Korean media. Essentially, Pyongyang’s propaganda system is preparing North Koreans for a rough ride in 2020. This is a fairly good indication that Pyongyang is gearing up for what it anticipates to be a fraught strategic relationship with Washington next year, and it may also serve as a demonstration for external audiences of North Korea’s resolve to weather whatever tribulations Washington has in store for it.

Recent Politics of Denuclearisation and the Return of Tension

Just as their propaganda system is gearing up for a return to 2020, so is ours. This takes a different form, however. Here the objective is to paint North Korea as a uniquely perfidious negotiating partner with no real desire to engage in substantive talks on denuclearisation. Blaming North Korea for the collapse in diplomacy is a way of preparing the populations of the West for a return to confrontation.  There have been two key aspects to this propaganda. The first has been the widespread blaming of North Korea for the failure of the recent working level talks in Sweden and references to Washington’s attempts to be flexible as Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline fast approaches. The second has been widespread misrepresentation of what North Korea agreed to at the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

Let’s take each in turn.

The working level talks in Sweden was North Korea’s price for agreeing to Trump’s impromptu call on Twitter to a meeting between he and Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom. We are now asked to believe that in extracting this concession Pyongyang deliberately torpedoed those working level talks by upping its demands. North Korea’s position from the September 2018 Pyongyang Declaration onward, i.e. before, during, and after Hanoi, has been invariant. The next step in the reciprocal step-by-step denuclearisation process should be trading dismantlement of Yongbyon for limited sanctions relief targeting the civilian economy (where almost half the population are under nourished). The US, by contrast, sticks to its demand of wholesale, verified and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear programme prior to sanctions relief, which clearly is not, and is not meant to be, a serious negotiating position. The media, however, with its loyal think tank experts in toe, some former State Department officials, nonetheless tell us differently. The recent references to a newfound flexibility, notice they serve as a tacit admission of what I’ve just written, are also exercises in propaganda. You can see this because at the United Nations Security Council meeting devoted to North Korea held this week, at the behest of Washington, France and the United Kingdom ruled out support for sanctions relief doubtless a reflection of the stance of the boss in the White House. The object here is make a play of concern and flexibility, while all the while precluding diplomatic progress. The media, and the think tank experts coming along for the ride, naturally play their dutiful role. This is a propaganda exercise preparing us for a rough ride by pointing to implacable North Korean intransigence.

The second is fairly easy to refute but you’ll find plenty of references to it in the mainstream media. Both Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo have often stated, most especially in the recent period, that Pyongyang must complete what it agreed to at Singapore, namely the denuclearisation of North Korea. This is a falsehood, and one made knowingly. North Korea agreed at Singapore to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, not the denuclearisation of North Korea, and in part that’s understood as the elimination of nuclear danger on and around the entire peninsula. That means the United States must also denuclearise i.e. lower the salience of nuclear deterrence in the bilateral relationship and take significant steps toward strategic stability. Basically, this means denuclearisation entails some form of stable mutual deterrence in the absence of global disarmament. That’s what North Korea signed up to at Singapore.

As can be seen our propaganda system is gearing us up for 2020 just as theirs is gearing up North Koreans. There are two crucial differences, however. Firstly, we don’t have to participate in this at pain of death. We are under no obligation to repeat the staples of our own propaganda system, but we do so anyway. This is a much more interesting phenomenon both analytically and normatively than what one observes in North Korea. Secondly, the consequences of our falling into line with our propaganda system hitherto has befallen over there, as it were. Consequences in terms of maimed bodies, the dead, the starving, wrecked cities, and broken societies. Now it’s different. The consequences may well be assessed in maimed bodies, the dead, and wrecked cities over here too. As I have argued many times here, over more than a year, we see a type of renewed Melian dialogue in reverse, really something fundamentally new and not witnessed before in the history of international relations, where Athens is negotiating with a Melos that can make it suffer as it must. Those interested in the academic study of international relations should be all over this, but oddly they aren’t.

What Is to Be Done?

As noted, we have seen a return to tension. The old barbs have come to the fore, little rocket man and the dotard for example, and I am sure we are familiar with the record. This is not a full blown or irreversible return to 2017, at least not yet. This is a type of warming up for a return to fire and fury. We still might take up Pyongyang’s offer at Hanoi and seek to freeze its nuclear programme. This would be the rational approach. However, there’s one important political barrier. I am referring to something beyond the considerations of power at the heart of Washington’s calculations. Ours are relatively open and democratic societies. Our propaganda systems are a barrier, yes, but we don’t have to succumb to them. We could demand of our leaders a more sane approach to policy, one more mindful of security than power. An important barrier at work here is our very perception of North Korea. Weird little North Korea. North Korea, “another country” as Bruce Cumings put it. North Korea the wild, unknown and unknowable other country. This is manifested in all sorts of ways, usually through juvenile mockery. Like displaying pictures of Kim Jong Un knelling, arse just above ground, like a Russian gopnik, an obvious and racist reference to pissing Asians. Like showing a big gorilla, sitting in front of a small troop of guerrillas, in a clear, again racist, depiction of Kim Jong Un. Like “Juche fest” and “Juche bird,” and other such things. All of these, and much, much more, which are ubiquitous, depict North Korea as an alien other. But this is the thing. It’s hard to sell a rational policy of mutual deterrence with an alien other. Whatever we might make of North Korea’s internal arrangements nonetheless there remains no correlation between the internal structure of a society and its external behaviour. Witness the Athens and Sparta of Thucydides. It’s easy to see how this all fits into the more immediate claims made by our propaganda systems, that is the perfidious negotiating partner. North Korea is such a perfidious negotiating partner because it’s beyond all the norms of modern civilisation. Because it’s another country, and the other country treats of diplomacy as the Klingons might have.

The main contribution analysts and commentators can make to challenging the verities of our own propaganda systems is to point out there’s nothing peculiar about North Korea precluding our peaceful coexistence with it. The more we other the North Koreans the more we make peaceful coexistence with North Korea impossible.

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North Korea’s December 13 Static Hot Test of a Liquid Propelled Engine at Sohae

On December 13 North Korea announced that it had conducted a second test at the Sohae Satellite Ground, hot on the heels of the December 7 test. I had put up two posts on the first, and what we know of the second is not inconsistent with their themes. The first post is available here and the second here.

As with the first there were hints of a second, this time from analysts associated with 38North. Their analysis (December 12) was not presented in an arrangement with CNN, so it did not garner quite the same attention as the indications visible just prior to the first. In particular the analysts at 38North observed that “a 10-meter-long truck is present adjacent to one of the newer fuel/oxidizer bunkers that may be the same vehicle as seen before in this area, although moved to a new position.”

A 10-metre truck is no small thing.

Then come the test. The test was again announced by a spokesman for the Academy of Defence Science. According to the statement

Another crucial test was successfully conducted at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground from 22:41 to 22:48 on December 13, 2019.

This statement left us with no doubt about the test’s relation to North Korea’s strategic nuclear programme

The research successes being registered by us in defence science one after another recently will be applied to further bolstering up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Many provided instant analysis on Twitter parsing this statement as saying the test was a reliability test of a liquid propelled missile engine. But notice that’s not what the statement says. It clearly states that the test further bolsters a strategic nuclear deterrent already considered reliable.

This time KCNA gave us a clue into the technical side of things, that is how long the test took. 7 minutes or 420 seconds. That’s important. Firstly, it strongly indicates that once again North Korea has static hot tested a liquid propelled engine at Sohae. The time, and the size of the truck observed prior, suggests something big. That is a high thrust engine. There was instant Twitter analysis about stopping and starting upper stage engines for a post boost vehicle, however North Korea has a number of facilities for testing lower thrust engines than the large test stand at Sohae. The test facilities at Sohae are for testing big engines.

I’ve argued in both my posts that the little we know does not rule out North Korea having tested a new high thrust engine for the booster stage of a new heavy ICBM with a throw weight sufficient for a megatonne class hydrogen bomb. This is where the 420 seconds gets interesting. Long time readers will know I’ve got a soft spot for static hot testing of the RS-25 engine, essentially upgraded Space Shuttle Main Engines, for NASA’s Space Launch System.

The RS-25 engines of the SLS will have a burn time of 500 seconds. Burn times of this ball park are associated with space launch vehicles hauling heavy payloads to high orbits (and in the case of the SLS beyond). The Titan II was America’s heavy LPE ICBM during the Cold War. It also doubled as a space launch vehicle. North Korea has plans to orbit a 1,000kg+ payload to a GEO orbit. We know that what typically happens is that ICBM advances get translated into space launch vehicle advances, not the other way around as we’ve been led to believe with regard to North Korea and Iran. In my previous post I suggested that, like the Titan II, North Korea might well have static hot tested a LPE for a new heavy ICBM that could also double up as a SLV this time for placing satellites into GEO orbit (not project Mercury).

That’s not to say that it did, only that’s it’s reasonable to have this hypothesis in our hypothesis space. Mostly, however, it has been a priori excluded. I don’t think this can be ruled out pending observation. The second, December 13 test, by no means compels its elimination. The main technical specification, the burn time of the December 13 static hot test, does not preclude this even though the burn time was greater than the nominal burn time of a LPE for an ICBM.

Now this is where things get a bit juicy. The December 13 test was accompanied by a statement from the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean Peoples Army. These are the key parts of that statement

The priceless data, experience and new technologies gained in the recent tests of defense science research will be fully applied to the development of another strategic weapon of the DPRK for definitely and reliably restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.


Genuine peace can be safeguarded and our development and future be guaranteed only when the balance of power is completely ensured.

We have stored up tremendous power.

This strongly suggests we are seeing here the development of a new ICBM, one more powerful than those we have observed hitherto. Notice that the statement announces a policy of strategic parity. This can be interpreted in two ways. Either we are seeing work toward developing a MIRV or MaRV capability with ballistic missile defence firmly in mind or work toward delivering megatonne class hydrogen bombs to the continental United States. The volume of the Hwasong-15 RV does enable MIRVing, should North Korea seek to go down this road, and the bit about “we have stored up tremendous power” sounds rather ominous.

In between the Academy of Defence Science announcement and the release of the statement by the Chief of the General Staff those who told us not to engage in instant Twitter analysis after the first static hot test on December 7 did precisely that, instant Twitter analysis precluding a new weapon system, and got it badly wrong.

We do not have sufficient information to be firm about any of this, but the information we do have, to repeat, should not lead us to rule out a new heavy ICBM, powered by new booster engines, for delivering a high mass hydrogen bomb to the continental United States. This new ICBM could double up as a space launch vehicle for delivering 1000kg+ payloads to GEO orbit.

As stated previously a new liquid propelled ICBM should lead us to examine why the prevailing assumption regarding North Korea’s next big move, an ICBM propelled by solid fuel motors, proved to be wrong. But that can only happen, to be proper, should we see a new liquid propelled ICBM.

Finally, one might recall the US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, say after the Hanoi Summit say that the marginal utility for the US to be gained for dismantling Yongbyon is less than the marginal utility to be gained by North Korea for sanctions relief. It would appear that the Marxists of Pyongyang are about to school the capitalists of Washington in neoclassical marginal utility economics.

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North Korea’s Test of a Liquid Propelled Rocket Engine at Sohae and the Assumption Pyongyang’s Next ICBM Will Be a Solid Fuel ICBM

North Korea’s announcement of a rocket engine test at Sohae, likely related to its missile programme given the announcement was made by the Academy of Defence Science, gives us an opportunity to question some of our prevailing assumptions about that programme.

It has been widely assumed that North Korea’s next ICBM, to the extent that another ICBM is on the pipeline, would be a solid fuelled ICBM. This would provide strategic planners in Pyongyang greater mobility and so therefore greater survivability.  That would be true irrespective of the fact that North Korea’s long range missiles employ storable liquid propellants. It has been assumed that this would be of interest to North Korea because planners in the United States and South Korea have an interest in using preemptive force (as they do in Pyongyang, by the way) in the event of hostilities.

Many analysts immediately concluded on Twitter that the December 7 engine test at Sohae was a test of a solid motor. Footnote 1 in this article by Michael Elleman at 38North gives you a sense of this. That conclusion was made because of the widespread assumption above, and so it’s reasonable to now question that assumption.

One thing that definitely provided credence to the assumption of a solid fuel ICBM was the string of new, shorter range, missiles flight tested by North Korea this year, for instance the KN-23 Iskander like SRBM and the Pukguksong-3 intermediate range SLBM. The latter especially lent support to it. There also was satellite image analysis showing additional construction activity at facilities known to be associated with solid fuel missile research and development. The second aspect preceded the first. At the time, the satellite imagery analysis was assumed to indicate possible work on a solid fuel ICBM but the subsequent string of shorter range missile tests might retrospectively be seen as an early indication of the string of new shorter range missiles recently tested.

The United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War both had liquid propelled heavy ICBMs, however the US also had the solid propelled MX-ICBM. The Titan II ICBM, which hauled a 9 megatonne W-53 warhead, was a liquid propelled ICBM. The SS-18 and SS-19, of window of vulnerability fame, also were liquid propelled. The Sarmat ICBM, currently in development, is Russia’s successor to the SS-18 and it too will be liquid propelled. Russia is not developing a solid propelled heavy ICBM.

North Korea’s Hwasog-15 ICBM is often compared to the Titan II. It definitely bears a visual resemblance to the Titan II. The W-53 warhead and the Mark VI Reentry Vehicle had a mass of 3,690kg. Now, that’s throw weight. Compare this to the Minuteman III. The W78 warhead and its associated RV (these figures are Cold War era related i.e. don’t consider modifications made after it nor the lighter W87) had a mass of up to 363kg. The Minuteman III during the Cold War exhibited three MIRVed W78 warheads, giving a payload of 1,089kg excluding the post boost vehicle or bus.

The Titan II booster or first stage was powered by two LR-87 engines. The thrust of a single LR-87 engine (at sea level) was 647 kilo Newtons or 65 tonnes force. The mass of the Titan II was 155,000kg, about twice that estimated for the Hwasong-15 ICBM. The total thrust of the twin booster engines for the Hwasong-15 is 80 tonnes force (130 tf for the Titan II). Additionally, the throw weight of the Hwasong-15 is estimated at 1,000kg.

It could be possible that North Korea’s next ICBM is a liquid propelled heavy ICBM, throw weight larger than 1,000kg, for targeting all of the continental United States with a multi megatonne warhead. The engine test on December 7 could therefore have been a test of a new more powerful liquid propelled engine. There’s been one extra reference to the engine test in the North Korean media on top of the original announcement via KCNA. This emphasised that the engine test at Sohae was “weighty.” It is granted this is slim evidence supportive of the heavy ICBM thesis, but it’s the best we have at the moment.

A very weighty test took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in the afternoon of December 7, 2019The results of the recent weighty test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future.

Recall also that the Titan II was a space launch vehicle. North Korea has plans to place higher mass satellites to low earth orbit, and also payloads to higher orbits especially GEO orbit. A heavy ICBM would also provide Pyongyang the basis for the booster stage of a hefty launch vehicle for its space programme.

There’s good conservative analysis of all this by Vann Van Diepen at 38North. He could well be right. Notice, however, he assumes North Korea’s nuclear warhead research and development programme has not and will not advance beyond what we’ve already seen. Everything in his analysis is variable, except for the physics package of the warhead which is treated as a constant.

A sold fuel ICBM likely wouldn’t have a throw weight greater than the Minuteman III. That means North Korea would have a solid propelled ICBM with about the same throw weight as the Hwasong-15, therefore it would be developed on grounds of mobility and survivability. However, consider this. Solid propelled ICBMs have three stages. Liquid propelled ICBMs like the Hwasong-15 have two stages. Let us say the probability of a successful launch of a rocket is

P= P^1 . P^2 …P^n

Where n is stage number and P is probability that the stage will operate successfully.

North Korea’s research and development philosophy is not one based on frequent testing of a missile. That means a three stage missile, absent an extensive flight testing programme, would be less reliable than a two stage missile. North Korea’s space launch vehicle series, the Unha series, features three stages. We’ll use this as a proxy, even though we’ll be talking different engines and technology in the case of a solid propelled ICBM. Thus far there have been four launches of the Unha series SLV. Two of these have been failures (the first was a third stage failure, the second a first stage failure). North Korea has a three stage batting average with the Unha series of 50%.

The less reliable a missile the less credible becomes nuclear deterrence. In the absence of an extensive testing programme for a solid propelled ICBM North Korea would be trading reliability for mobility and survivability. That could have no overall effect on the credibility of deterrence, it might even have a negative effect.  A bigger button, a Suryong Bomba let’s say, however might be another matter.

In short, I would not rule out that North Korea has developed a new higher thrust liquid propelled engine for a heavy liquid propelled ICBM. That’s certainly not a conservative assumption, but I submit it is reasonable that it forms part of our hypothesis space pending observation. Therefore, so far as I am concerned, it remains on my line of sight. Should North Korea’s next ICBM not be solid propelled (not the same as saying they’ll never be a solid fuel North Korean ICBM) then we’ll have to ask ourselves why the prevailing assumption was wrong.

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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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