It’s time to play some catch up, as events on the North Korean nuclear front have outpaced me. We’ve seen the fifth inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, and the renewal of high level talks between the United States and North Korea during Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Pyongyang. I have, very briefly and quite speculatively it must be said, commented upon the nuclear aspects of the fifth inter-Korean summit only and the recent round of Pompeo’s shuttle diplomacy not at all.
I will concentrate on the Pompeo visit, and its two main talking points namely North Korea’s offer for expert inspectors, presumably American, to visit North Korea’s nuclear test site, near Punggye-ri, and preparations for a second summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
As we know North Korea claimed to have dismantled the nuclear test site in demonstration of its disarmament bona fides, however that claim has not been verified. North Korea did invite a select group of international media to observe and film what it claimed to be the explosive collapse of the test tunnels, however that hardly constitutes verification by experts. Indeed, North Korea appears to have initially offered to allow foreign experts to observe and monitor this claimed dismantlement but then withdrew it. What information we have about those explosions is consistent with the thesis that North Korea closed the nuclear test tunnels rather than collapsed them. If that’s true then Punggye-ri has not been dismantled and the closing of the tunnels, in part, was a public relations exercise.
The reasons for supposing this have been well summarised by Stephen Herzog
North Korea did indeed destroy facilities at its test site on May 24 in the presence of a group of international journalists. But the journalists watching the show were not technical experts in on-site inspection. They were not geophysicists who could analyze local seismic data to measure the magnitude of exploding tunnels to make sure they were actually being destroyed — not just temporarily sealed off. Nor were they versed in multi-spectral imaging to detect terrain abnormalities, or magnetic and gravitational field monitoring to locate hidden underground testing infrastructure and cavities. The journalists watching from afar also weren’t prepared to take environmental samples in the tunnels prior to their alleged destruction, which might help the world understand the activities that have taken place at Punggye-ri in the past
According to Mike Pompeo, Kim Jong-un offered to allow an expert group to visit Punggye-ri to verify its “irreversible dismantlement.” The statement from KCNA following the Pompeo trip alluded to this offer, but did not explicitly mention it and certainly not in the language of “irreversible dismantlement.” There are three problems with this seeming concession that bear mentioning. Firstly, it is not clear how many inspections North Korea would allow and how intrusive those inspections would be. It appears that only one inspection visit has been offered, which doesn’t fit well with the “irreversible dismantlement” formulation of Pompeo.
Secondly, the inspection visit comes after the crime, as it were, so would be a cold case investigation. For example, should experts have been present during the detonations at Punggye-ri they would have collected seismic data “on the spot” (to use a North Korean phrase) to help verify that the tunnels collapsed. Recall after the sixth nuclear test the secondary seismic events that were monitored by geologists. The time and place for getting that local data was then and there, and if the verification of irreversible dismantlement is an accurate formulation any North Korean data would need to be shared with the inspectors. It is not clear that it will.
Thirdly, whatever went down at Punggye-ri it should not be viewed in a disarmament frame. North Korea has completed a mature nuclear weapons research and development programme and the shuttering of Punggye-ri would not mean North Korea disarms a single nuclear warhead nor would it prevent Pyongyang from assembling and deploying new warheads based on its tried and tested nuclear designs.
However, North Korea instead of allowing a single cold case inspection of unknown scope could sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which would act as a type of freeze on its nuclear capabilities. This would prevent North Korea from reliably developing nuclear warheads with higher yield-to-weight ratios, which would be more strategically destabilising than the current situation especially should such advanced warheads be coupled to better guidance performance from its missiles and should higher yield-to-weight ratios enable Pyongyang to develop multiple reentry vehicles. There are three ways that this would be more of substance than a single inspection at Pungyye-ri.
Firstly, it poses a potential future cost. Should North Korea sign and ratify the CTBT, only to then withdraw from it and resume testing that could undermine inter-Korean détente and a withdrawal from an arms control treaty may well lead to the intensification of maximum pressure sanctions with the support of the broader international community. The bar is set high by the international community when It comes to withdrawal from an arms control treaty, at least for the weak it is.
Secondly, technologically ceiling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme places a qualitative freeze on its capabilities under which potential disarmament or denuclearisation or stockpile freeze steps can proceed as diplomacy further proceeds. Thirdly, it means any quantitative augmentation North Korea makes to its nuclear stockpile will remain expensive and more challenging. After the cold war Russia had an interest in keeping its MIRVs not just because of BMD, but also because multiple warheads per missile enabled it to maintain strategic parity with the United States in a more cost effective manner.
Kim Jong-un in his 2018 new year address stated that North Korea would move to “mass produce” its strategic nuclear force. Increasing the stockpile by building one warhead for one, say, Hwasong-15 ICBM which is transported and launched by one very large TEL is expensive. Mounting multiple warheads on the one Hwasong-15 on the one TEL would give North Korea more bang for the buck, an important consideration for the same reasons that it was for Russia. The last time North Korea paraded long range missiles it appeared Pyongyang had a limited number of large TELs, and thus far the only publicly reported intelligence information is that North Korea has assembled one to two Hawsong-15 missiles in 2018. North Korea has paraded 4 Hwasong-15s, and tested 1. These things cost money, and North Korea is now focused on economic development.
One thing that did emerge after the Pompeo visit was a kind of declaration from North Korea that its conception of disarmament is that it will disarm in the context of global nuclear disarmament, a standard refrain of the nuclear states and new nuclear states. It has been pointed out this was always North Korea’s position, yet in 2016 North Korea did enunciate a conception of disarmament limited to the Korean peninsula. The next the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Pyongyang. It is interesting how this curious episode has effectively gone out of history.
Mike Pompeo was accompanied by Stephen Biegun, whom he introduced to Kim Jong-un. A key talking point from the Pompeo trip was renewed impetus for a second summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, and that soon too. A process of working level meetings has been set up for this, and you get the distinct impression that Donald Trump wants one even more than Kim Jong-un. That’s a stunning historical reverse. It means that there has been a kind of stunning reverse analytically too. Hitherto to point out that North Korea’s disarmament declarations are not really disarmament declarations would have been pro administration, whether Clinton, Bush or Obama. Now, under Trump post Singapore, that’s a subversive act.
It would seem that the main consideration for Trump is domestic politics, for another summit would give him an opportunity to put the Kavanaugh affair behind a fickle public made fickler by Twitter politics. The optics of the summit would dominate commentary, eclipsing all before it. The Trump administration is tailored made for the Twitter era. One thing I’ve noticed about Twitter is that people get excited about stuff quickly, they tweet and seek likes, then something else grabs people’s attention and then you get excited and tweet again seeking a like fix once more for to paraphrase Homer a like on Twitter is much like a beer.
Meanwhile, what got you excited 6 seconds ago becomes ancient history and so it goes on. That’s how the politics of the Trump administration works. The showman performs some stunt or says something absurd, we get excited, we express outrage via a tweet but really we want in on the action because we can’t live without those likes, meaning effectively we too seek and derive a Trump bump, then we move on to the next inanity having forgotten the one immediately preceding. Kim might give Trump his summit (there’s something in it for Kim too but that I will leave for the next post on this topic), in which case Brett Kavanagh will be forgotten as will the recent IPCC Report telling us that time is short if we want to prevent dangerous global warming.
‘tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the buzzing of my twitter.
I will now link this to my twitter. Anyone remember covfefe?