Fire and Fury as Mutually Exclusive Concepts of Nuclear Disarmament Inevitably Collide in Pyongyang

Matter and antimatter can lead a separate existence but when they meet they annihilate each other. That is exactly what has just happened in Pyongyang following the latest visit of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Two mutually exclusive meanings of the one underlying concept and two mutually exclusive interpretations of the one summit came together in Pyongyang and they have explosively collided.

We know of this because of a long statement from the North Korean foreign ministry. That statement was issued after Pompeo stated that good progress was made on some of the central issues at dispute regarding nuclear disarmament but yet others require more work. The tone was upbeat.

According to the foreign ministry statement North Korea had demanded a declaration on the end of the state of war between the United States and North Korea, that North Korea would dismantle the missile engine test “ground” (as opposed to stand) at Sohae (it references the testing ground of “the high thrust engine” i.e. the Paektusan engine) as part of denuclearisation, and for the start of working level talks on the reparation of the remains of US POW and MIA. For its part, the United States stuck to its demand for complete, verified, and irreversible nuclear dismantlement (CVID). Pompeo has stated in Tokyo, following the Pyongyang talks, that he did ask for a list of all strategic nuclear facilities in North Korea and for the verification of that list. He also stated firmly that there would be no sanctions relief for North Korea until it completely dismantles its nuclear capabilities.

North Korea’s asking for a declaration of peace in exchange for the razing of the missile engine test stand at Sohae is unrealistic, certainly in the light of the political climate in the United States and on going work on its solid fuelled ballistic missile programme (I have a separate post on that here). One wonders whether North Korea’s stance on this is reflective of a growing sense of hubris and grandeur on Kim Jong-un’s part. The US insistence on CVID is also unrealistic, considering North Korea’s long known stance on this.

The immediate aftermath of the Singapore Summit demonstrated, what was clear even before it, that North Korea and the United States have two competing conceptions of nuclear disarmament and that there are, in addition, two competing interpretations as to what happened at Singapore.

Now we have two contrasting views as to what happened in Pyongyang. One upbeat, the other downbeat.

Two competing conceptions and two competing interpretations of nuclear disarmament does not constitute an “agreement,” this is a matter of the merest trivia, and so the characterisation that the agreement at Singapore has now collapsed is not accurate.

There was no agreement to begin with in the first place. In fact, there was no agreement about what transpired at Singapore just like now with the meeting in Pyongyang. I had stated above that the North Korean demand of a declaration of peace first is unrealistic, but according to the Foreign Ministry statement one can see that North Korea thinks that peace first, disarmament later was agreed to at Singapore.

It appears that the bilateral diplomatic process will continue, a working level meeting is due on July 12 and neither Washington nor Pyongyang have abandoned the talks, but the prospects appear dim that it will lead to an agreement worthy of the concept agreement given the disparity in interpretation.

In a nutshell, the two competing conceptions of nuclear disarmament are what North Korea calls “denuclearisation” and what the US calls CVID or complete, verified, irreversible, dismantlement. The difference is encapsulated well by the concept globalisation. A global economy would be an economy characterised by global factor product markets, and globalisation, in theory at least, is a process that ever closely approximates that final global state and when that final end state is reached there can be no more talk of globalisation, at least not in the economic sense. The “isation” in globalisation and denuclearisation indicates that what is being referred is the heading toward a future end or complete state, and a process by definition involves a step-by-step procedure.

That’s North Korea’s conception of nuclear disarmament, that is denuclearisation is to be a step-by-step process, involving reciprocal actions, leading to an eventual state of disarmament.

For the United States disarmament is getting to the disarmed end state without going through that step-by-step process. Under CVID nuclear disarmament is a steak to be eaten whole. CVID is not really a process, it being more a demand to be adhered to within a short time frame. John Bolton, the National Security Adviser to President Trump, has given a one year timeframe. In the days leading up to the Pyongyang talks the State Department changed its label from CVID to FFVD, that is “final, fully verified disarmament,” all the while insisting that its conception of disarmament has not changed. The “final” part was evocative of a step-by-step process. But the North Korean Foreign Ministry statement following the June 6-7 talks shows either that there was no substantive change to CVID, in accord with US statements, or that the FFVD label was not bought by North Korea.

North Korea’s Hwasong-15 ICBM is fuelled by hypergolic propellants, that is the fuel and oxidiser ignite on contact, and denuclearisation and CVID are pretty much akin to hypergolic propellants that are destined to ignite on contact. This is because North Korea did not agree to nuclear disarmament at Singapore, certainly not as the US conceives of it, and furthermore a KCNA statement following the Singapore Summit shows that Pyongyang felt that a step-by-step process of denuclearisation was agreed to at Singapore. The United States, for its part, has insisted that it did not abandon its position of prompt nuclear dismantlement.

But there’s a little bit more at play than this. What happened is also a function of the obsession with North Korean nuclear disarmament in western discourse, an obsession shared across the board. It is indeed correct that Kim did not agree to CVID at Singapore, and that the Trumps administration’s inflated rhetoric regarding Singapore has been shown, yet again, to be at variance with reality. But pointing out the difference between Trumpian rhetoric and reality without considering alternatives to CVID has the effect of entrenching CVID as the default disarmament position and thus anything less is perceived to be an affront to the credibility of US global power. That, of course, is verboten as the credibility of US global power is the bedrock commitment shared by just about all in mainstream commentary on US foreign policy.

I rather suspect that the obsession for nuclear dismantlement in western, especially US, political discourse has another effect not much commented upon. It has the effect of forestalling inter-Korean peace. The Korean War is a civil war among Koreans, and as such it is best resolved by Koreans themselves. That view explicitly underpins the Panmunjom Declaration agreed to by North and South Korea at the third inter-Korean Summit earlier in the year. The obsession with nuclear dismantlement has the effect of making the end of the Korean War contingent upon prior nuclear disarmament, and that in accord with CVID in the absence of alternatives to it. CVID has an interesting history, and it has pretty much always functioned as a means for Washington to scuttle diplomacy with North Korea. It thereby follows that by, firstly, seeking to make peace in Korea contingent upon nuclear dismantlement and, secondly, viewing nuclear dismantlement through the prism of CVID the United States, in effect if not design, prevents Koreans from ending the Korean civil war.

As the highly regarded US historian, Bruce Cumings, has pointed out Koreans both north and south of the 38th parallel hold the United States responsible for the division of the Korean peninsula. I can be characterised as a critical observer of Washington’s role in world affairs, but even I was very much surprised to learn of this. The signal obsession with nuclear dismantlement in US public discourse, viewing everything that is happening in Korea through the lens of its own obsession, becomes a tad vulgar considering that history. The proper thing for Americans to do would be to demand of their government that it allow the Koreans space sufficient to hammer out some form of rapprochement. I am certain that this how Americans would view the matter if asked.

But the Korean War had another important effect not without moment here. It helped bring into being and to entrench the national security state, where the views of Americans about America’s role in the world counts for very little.