One of the, many, big questions occasioned by North Korea’s first test flight of its big new missile is where do we, but also where do they, go from here. To be sure not only Pyongyang and Washington are players here, so are Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow but I will focus on the two main protagonists in the current round of the Korean nuclear crisis, North Korea and the United States. In both cases there are immediate possibilities to consider and longer term possible actions and counteractions to mull over.
I’ll take a leaf from David Hume by saying that we must be mindful in our analysis of the is/ought distinction. That is to say, we must be clear as to the distinction of what we think may happen and what we think ought to happen. Consider the key structural issue here, namely the mutual acceptance of a condition of nuclear deterrence. Some have argued that US policy ought to be based on the recognition that mutual deterrence is a bold faced fact whatever one might want to think of it. That is, that the US simply must learn to live with a nuclear North Korea and that means accepting that US policy with respect to North Korea must inevitably have its scope and limits. That means, at its most basic, acceptance that denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula either diplomatically or militarily is no longer a viable option and regime change either through graduated containment and or military force also are far too risky.
As the technical constraints on North Korea’s nuclear programme narrows so the scope of US policy also narrows. That is a fact, whatever one may think of it.
To base policy on a rejection of this condition, post Hwasong-15, is to fly in the face of reality and courts disaster, and this we ought not do. A realist of Waltzian bent would argue that the strategic interaction between the two sides will inevitably gravitate toward recognition of the underlying structural condition, that is of mutual deterrence, although the road might be bumpy and winding at first, eventually a modus vivendi based on the recognition of mutual deterrence will be reached whatever our, and their, preferences on the matter. There are reasons why Waltz had a fondness for concepts of naturalism and equilibrium in neoclassical economic theory.
I will have more to say about this later, but I’m not optimistic about the prospects of a safe landing given current trends and the perceptive reader will notice that they are, in part, reflective of pessimistic temper regarding the possibility of denuclearisation talks or even of a nuclear freeze.
Let me first deal with North Korea.
The North Korean press agency, KCNA, following the Hwasong-15 test, carried a North Korean statement saying that it has now completed the construction of its nuclear force as mandated by the Korean Workers’ Party. Many suppose, or better still many hope, that this means North Korea will now concentrate on operationally deploying the assets it has at its disposal, so no more missile tests and no more nuclear weapons tests which is for the good, if that can be said, for it should take a bit of the heat out of the current standoff.
That hope is surely misplaced.
North Korea has conducted one test of the Hwasong-15 heavy ICBM and two tests of the Hwasong-14 ICBM. A mature nuclear deterrent requires highly reliable missiles, and that means more tests. Consider the United States and Russia. Both regularly conduct tests of their ICBMs and SLBMs to ensure continued reliability, let alone qualitative modernisation, and those ICBMs and SLBMs are fully deployed missiles that have completed a rigorous research and development programme. The latter, that is R&D, does not end with one test and that is for a combination of both technical and strategic reasons, for example credible deterrence mandates higher technical reliability. The first stage and second stage of the Hwasong-15 are both new, with new features such as, for the first stage, twin clustered high thrust engines which are gimbaled to boot. Moreover, the two Hwasong-14 tests and the Hwasong-15 tests were conducted on lofted trajectories and one surmises that North Korea would seek to eventually test both missiles on more depressed trajectories if not on minimal energy trajectories.
So, we should expect more ICBM tests. In fact, we should expect them so long as North Korea is a nuclear weapon state. Further to that, North Korea’s solid fuel programme continues and, ultimately, road mobile solid fuelled missiles with ranges longer than the Pukugksong-2 MRBM are more strategically useful, and stable, than road mobile liquid fuelled missiles. In other words, just as with all the other nuclear weapon states, we should expect North Korea to seek to qualitatively improve its nuclear capabilities. That means more and more tests.
North Korean officials have stated that they would seek to demonstrate their true nuclear capabilities by air bursting a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific from a long range missile, or perhaps by testing a megatonne yield thermonuclear device underground prior to entering into any diplomatic process with the United States. That’s redolent of Reaganite notions of diplomacy as encapsulated by a well worn slogan of the 1980s; “peace through strength.”
The Punggye-ri nuclear test site’s North Portal tunnel complex under Mount Mantap reportedly has tunnels that can contain a nuclear explosion up to 282 kilotonnes. Satellite images from the Punggye-ri nuclear test site suggest that there has been minimal activity at the North Portal, with more activity at the new West Portal, since the September 03 hydrogen bomb test. However, the spoil extracted from the North Portal is much larger than the West Portal spoil and there has been no sign of additional tunnelling activity at the West Portal so the tunnel complex that the West Portal leads to can contain nuclear explosions less than the North Portal complex can. That suggests that an airburst is more likely, however one must stress that the 282Kt figure refers to a contained nuclear explosion. Some radionuclides did leak from the September 03 hydrogen bomb test, suggesting, along with other evidence, that the September test may well have been more than 282 kilotonnes.
If the North Koreans want us to know what they can do release of radionuclides from an underground test isn’t so much of a concern, although containment isn’t desired for just preventing the venting of radionuclides. At any rate, the way the tunnel complexes, which are not just single tunnels under a portal, appear to be designed suggests more testing in future certainly the capacity exists for many more tests.
This discussion is interesting given the large throw weight of the Hwasong 15, it’s physical dimensions and the twin engine cluster point to this, in addition to the high volume RV (look at the pic of Kim Jong-un by the side of the TEL and use him as scale for the RV below), has many suggesting, myself included, the possibility of future MRVing and MIRVing of the Hwasong-15, although both are more complex technologies than what North Korea has demonstrated thus far in both its missile and space programmes. There’s another possibility namely the development of a heavy megatonne class thermonuclear warhead (in addition to decoys and other anti BMD countermeasures). The Hwasong-15 does look much like the Titan II ICBM, and that includes the high volume payload fairing. The Titan II had a 9 megatonne W53 warhead payload, which was based on an all weapons grade uranium fissile primary.
Now for the longer term. North Korea’s nuclear programme should be seen in the context of Kim Jong-un’s policy of pursuing simultaneously a comprehensive nuclear deterrent and economic development, which is different to the army first policy of his father Kim Jong-il. North Korea might seek to employ its nuclear capabilities in ways that support economic development. North Korea is highly sanctioned, and that means the programme of economic development must necessarily be quite constrained both in terms of the rate of GDP growth and the persistence of GDP growth with respect to time. A North Korea that can strike the United States and wipe out its cities might eventually be seen as providing scope for Pyongyang to coerce the withering away of those sanctions so expanding Pyongyang’s production possibilities frontier, especially if the US continues to respond to various North Korean actions, not just nuclear related, by further tightening them. That could be done through “the threat that leaves something to chance,” that is by projecting a nuclear posture that presents the US with an unacceptable risk that things might get out of control should Washington continue to constrain North Korea’s economic development.
The last thing that I imagine happening is North Korea simply allowing the further, indeed continued, containment of its economy without utilising in some fashion its growing strategic nuclear capabilities.
With regard to the United States we must beware of the distinction between mutual deterrence as condition and mutual deterrence as policy. The supposition that Washington must learn to live with a nuclear North Korea as it has a nuclear Moscow and Beijing is based on a false premise, namely that it has learnt to live with a nuclear Moscow and Beijing through acceptance of mutually assured destruction. US nuclear strategy is not based on mutually assured destruction, and never has been. Rather, US nuclear strategy is based on concepts of escalation dominance and the idea here is precisely to escape mutual deterrence. Consider, for instance, the matter of the super fuse on the W76-1/Mk4a warhead. That’s an attempt to find a technological escape from mutual deterrence. If the US seeks through finer points of doctrine and technological advance to escape mutual deterrence with Moscow and Beijing, what are the odds that it won’t do so with respect to Pyongyang? Not very high, I submit.
You can see this through continued official rhetoric about the possibility of pursuing preventive military strikes against North Korea, and a lot of that rhetoric is supported through a curious mixture of playing down North Korea’s technical capabilities and upgrading Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities among other possible countermeasures. That combination is important, because advocates of “preventive” strikes against North Korean missile and nuclear facilities argue that there still exists a window of opportunity for military action. Such views make sense only when seen as an explicit rejection of mutual deterrence, and that rejection remains official US policy and, so far as I can see, it will continue to remain so.
The other problem is that US policy must be concerned with the extended deterrence of Japan and South Korea. As the nuclear crisis has escalated, so has US assurance operations such as B-1B patrols and simulated strike operations with Japanese and South Korean fighter support. The US and South Korea, as I write, are conducting large, preplanned, biannual air exercises including B-1B bombers and, for the first time, multiple F-22 and F-35 aircraft. It has been explicitly stated that these exercises shall simulate strikes against road mobile missiles. The pattern of North Korean testing and escalating US counter reaction has a lot to do with extended deterrence, as one would expect of escalation dominance. One of the key reasons why the US had, and has, an escalation dominance strategy is because it is perceived as necessary for extended deterrence.
In sum, I am somewhat pessimistic that things from here on end will necessarily, or naturally, settle toward a structural condition of mutual deterrence where both sides accept unwritten codes of conduct and tight limits to the scope of their rivalry. I think that it ought to happen, and probably is the best thing we can hope for at this point, but it must be made to happen. There is no natural equilibrium in either economic or international affairs and to bank on one in both domains is irrational.