Early post Singapore summit developments show a disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric on denuclearisation and reality on the ground in North Korea.
Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, or better still the prospect thereof, continues to dominate post Singapore summit discussion and analysis. I write here of some of those aspects, especially regarding what they might be telling us about the underlying, fundamental, basis to the emerging diplomatic process.
It is early days, but certain trends are already discernible. Two of the most obvious are, firstly, the inflated rhetoric from the Trump administration on progress toward denuclearisation and the facts, as we know of them, on the ground. The second, is the very real differences of emphasis and interpretation as to what transpired and was agreed to at Singapore. For today, I have focus on the first of these two aspects.
Most discussion of denuclearisation since June 12, that is since the Singapore summit, has focused on a North Korean pledge to dismantle a missile or rocket engine testing facility. That claim was made by none other than Trump himself in public remarks immediately after the summit, indeed he even claimed that the facility was already destroyed. That led to considerable confusion among observers as up until that point no missile testing engine facility was known to be destroyed by the North Koreans, although it was known that a facility for testing the cold ejection of solid fuel missiles from a canister was destroyed (more on that later). Not long after the summit the White House press spokesperson, Sarah Sanders, was asked at a White House briefing by reporters what facility Trump had in mind when he made that claim. She took the question on notice, saying she needed to refer to the Pentagon for more specifics.
For an excellent run down on North Korea’s engine testing facility see this careful and detailed exposition at the ArmsControlWonk site by Scott LaFoy.
Then South Korean media reported, upon the basis of unaccredited information from a South Korean diplomat, that the facility in question was the static hot testing facility for liquid propellant engines at the Sohae satellite launch complex. This is where North Korea tested its relatively large, high-thrust, Paektusan or March 18 Revolution engine. This engine is the booster engine of the Hwasong-12 IRBM, the Hwasong-14 limited range ICBM, and the Hwasong-15 ICBM. The Hwasong-15 booster or first stage, is comprised of a two Paektusan engine cluster that is also gimballed (the HS-12 and HS-14 employs verniers). As far as we know the Paektusan engine was not static hot tested in its Hwasong-15 configuration. That could be a sign of the confidence North Korean scientists and engineers have in its design.
Then a US report, based on information from an unaccredited senior government official, stated that the facility at play was indeed the hot testing facility at Sohae. That would be a significant development, if true. The Sohae facility is where North Korea has tested its large liquid propellant engines, and furthermore that would be the facility, presumably, where North Korea would test new engines for its space programme. Controversy over that space programme, especially with the 2012 Leap Day Deal, has scuttled previous diplomatic breakthroughs so perhaps North Korea will refrain from attempting to launch satellites into space over the near term.
Pyongyang has previously indicated that it intended to attempt two launches this year, including that of a 1000kg commercial satellite to a geostationary orbit. North Korea’s sees its space programme as supporting economic development, which is where the policy emphasis appears to be at present. China’s CZ-3 or Long March 3 was developed to deliver up to 1500kg payload to geosynchronous orbit and the main innovation lies in the third stage which was the first time China employed cryogenic fuels in its space programme (YF-23 third stage engine). Hot testing cryogenic propelled engines is different from hot testing storable liquid propelled engines like the Paektusan as the fuel needs to be kept at a very low temperature. The third stage engine would have a lower thrust than the booster engines and lower propellent mass so Sohae might not be the designated place for any such test.
The first Indian space launch vehicle to indigenously launch a satellite to geosynchronous orbit, the GSLV Mk. III, also employed a cryogenic engine for the third stage. The video below shows the 2017 test of the CE-20 engine for the GSLV MKIII SLV
It should be stressed that this is would be an important innovation in North Korea’s space programme, but one not with ballistic missile implications as LPE engines supportive of a ballistic missile programme are based on storable hypergolic fuels. It should also be stated that there is no indication that North Korea is either developing cryogenic third stage engines or configuring any of its engine testing facilities to support such a development.
There are four additional points to be made, firstly no indication regarding the dismantlement of a hot testing facility, let alone which one, has come from the North Koreans themselves and the latest geospatial analysis from 38north’s Joseph Bermudez (as of June 12 the day of the summit) shows no preparations for this. Until such indication has been formally made much of this remains uncertain. We have already seen differences between Washington and Pyongyang as to precisely what transpired at Singapore so conflicting perspectives regarding Sohae would not be new.
Secondly, on the ballistic missile front North Korea has everything it wants of liquid propellant engines. The Hwasong-15 gives it the ability to strike all 50 US states with relatively high yield thermonuclear weapons. The Titan II ICBM, with which the Hwasong-15 has often been compared, was the mainstay of the LPE ICBM force of the United States from 1963 to 1987.
Thirdly, if North Korea has pledged to dismantle the hot testing facility at Sohae it means that it keeps its solid fuel motor hot testing facility, a possible indication of where its priorities lie as far as its ballistic missile programme is concerned. We should remember that at the April 2017 Day of the Sun military parade we saw two TELs on parade consistent with an ICBM, one which featured a canister arrangement typical of a solid fuelled ICBM. We might recall the 2017 visit by Kim Jong-un to the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defence Science.
Fourthly, the only ballistic missile testing facility we know of that has been destroyed was a facility at Iha-ri for testing the cold launch of a solid fuelled missile from a canister, apparently for a missile larger than the Pukguksong-2 MRBM. The geospatial analysis of this also comes from Joseph Bermudez at 38North.
That facility was not as “key” as billed. You can tell this by the date it apparently began construction, that is not long after the test of the Pukguksgong-2 sold fuelled MRBM from a TEL in February 2017. Indeed, a mere few days after the Pukguksong-2 test it would seem. The facility seemingly completed construction in October 2017. That’s hardly snail’s pace. By May 2018, that is after the April 2018 plenum of the Central Committee which resolved to cease missile testing, supporting facilities at the site were razed and the relatively large test canister removed. That suggests that the dismantlement of the site is not irreversible, and that it can be reconstituted quicker than it was originally constructed. Such a facility is not the key or a key step in developing a long range solid fuelled missile and so is at variance with the significance that Trump places upon it, if that is what he is referring to in some of his statements about North Korea already razing a facility associated with North Korea’s missile programme (as it can only be).
Even should it be the case that Pyongyang confirms that the missile engine test site at Sohae will indeed be destroyed, that won’t necessarilly tell us what the North Koreans will actually end up doing there. For example, North Korea might just destroy the test stand, leaving the support facilities in place, thereby making its actions reversible. What happened at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site might serve as a guide.
We have seen North Korea, to great publicity, blow up its nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri. This remains the most tangible expression of denuclearisation, yet recent evidence suggests that this act also does not match the inflated rhetoric of Trump. There is much to be said about Punggye-ri, and I think that I have promised a post on this already, but analysis indicates that the actions of the North Koreans are reversible. The North Koreans showed off a simple two dimensional map of the tunnels at Punggye-ri, which further confirmed that the facility was designed to support a mature nuclear weapons testing programme. That map, which features the North portal tunnel i.e the one used for five of North Korea’s six nuclear tests, consists of a main tunnel and protrusions of those (most likely) into a fish hook configuration as previously shown off by the North Koreans in a propaganda video.
That enables the one tunnel to be used to support multiple nuclear weapon tests, and the five tests would have formed five contained cavities within Mount Mantap. The explosives used to shut the tunnels appear to have been five kilogramme explosives situated far enough away from the cavities to prevent seismic aftershocks, suggesting that tunnel branches are intact so in turn leaving the main tunnel intact albeit closed off. That is, it appears as if the entry to the North portal tunnel has been sealed rather than the tunnels having been destroyed. The same also appears to have been replicated with the South and West portals where to date no tests have been conducted. The apparent failure to destroy all the support buildings all suggest that dismantlement of the site is not irreversible.
None of this makes for denuclearisation let alone irreversible denuclearisation. What the North Koreans are doing on the ground appears to match its aspirational and conditional policy of denuclearisation which is at variance with variance of representations of both coming from the Trump White House.
There have also been two other post Singapore developments of note, the first concerns the cancellation of US-South Korean military exercises, and Kim Jong-un’s third trip this year to China. The second I leave aside here for a subsequent post. As we know President Trump stated that he promised Kim Jong-un at Singapore to cancel “war games” with South Korea. Which military exercises he was referring to was not clear, although this week we learnt those were the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises planned for August. The initial statement this week was that the US and South Korea agreed to suspend planning for those exercises, which is different from providing a pledge of cancellation as widely reported. However, just yesterday the Pentagon released a statement saying they were being cancelled. Why the movement from suspension of planning to cancellation without reciprocal North Korean action? That might be relevant to Sohae. The United States has also stated that the cancellation does not include the suspension or cancellation of the large troop heavy exercises with South Korea such as Foal Eagle, that being contingent on further steps toward North Korean denuclearisation.
If, thus far, there are good grounds to hold that the rhetoric of the Trump administration is inflated we need ask; why and what are the possible ramifications? The foregoing supports the view that the Singapore summit for the Trump administration largely, although not totally, is a public relations bonanza for domestic political effect. The Congressional midterm elections are not far off, for example, and for the Republicans and the interests they serve, the asset rich wealthy, investors, and corporate managers most especially, the holding of Republican majorities in Congress enables them to pursue the type of policies they have thus far been pursuing, which are highly attuned to those interests as opposed to the interests of working people and the marginalised. That matters. The continued solidification of the Republican vote will be important for congressional redistricting in 2022, as the 2018 and 2020 elections will play an important role here. That also matters.
Another factor at play, related to that above, is that it keeps our attention on Trump the great deal maker, Trump the great helmsman, and such whilst we divert our attention to the very real damage the administration is inflecting to the social fabric and to prospects for reasonably managing climate change and other issues of pressing concern. That also matters.
On the North Korean side something similar is at work. Kim Jong-un can and does play the great helmsman back at home, further solidifying his rule, but it also keeps the emerging peace process with South Korea, and rapprochement with China, on track free of US efforts at sabotage. For Pyongyang a formal policy of denuclearisation, and seeming to act in accordance with it, is a necessary part of the politics of rapprochement. Although in Kim’s case the diplomatic process appears to be also devoted to making progress on economic development and living standards.
But, back to Washington.
The expression “the art of the deal” is one that we associate with Trump but it is, and always has been, highly misleading. When we look at the history we see that Trump hardly makes for a great deal maker, he certainly hasn’t made a great deal, if one at all, with Kim Jong-un. But that is beside the point. Where Trump has succeeded consistently and spectacularly is having people believe he is a great deal maker.
But that is more a function not of his brilliance but of our propensity and willingness to be hoodwinked.
The consequences of all this, and not just with respect to North Korea, are potentially ominous. There will likely come a point when the Singapore charade, as it thus far appears to be, will no longer be of service to the occupant of the Oval Office. At that point Trump will charge North Korean perfidy, and the narrative already constructed regarding complete and prompt denuclearisation is very conducive toward that end. Should that point be reached it will be anybody’s guess what might happen thereafter. Some of the possibilities are difficult to contemplate, although Edouard Daladier’s lament after Munich does readily spring to mind.