Has North Korea Made New Nuclear Weapons Since Singapore?

We must always strive to be precise with the concepts that we use, that’s a given, although this injunction can easily lead to hair splitting. A type of paralysis through analysis, if you will. In the study of nuclear affairs, arms control and so on a certain arcane is often associated with the precise use of concepts. That arcane can be worth its weight in gold, however, as conceptual clarity can prevent efforts at manipulation. For example, has Russia “blatantly” violated the INF Treaty? We don’t really know (still!?), but loose use of the concept “blatant violation” has contributed to the current INF impasse. That said, technicalia can be used to cloud understanding and, in nuclear policy, often does.

The North Koreans have learnt a thing or two from the established nuclear weapon states about the selling of policy dressed through use of a narrow technical concept that means something a little bit different to outsiders. The concept “denuclearisation” is a good example. For most this means disarmament, but for the nuclear states denuclearisation refers to a process that lowers the salience of nuclear deterrence in international relations. When Obama changed US declaratory policy in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review his administration engaged in “denuclearisation” even as it embarked upon a massive nuclear modernisation programme.

Barack Obama, like Kim Jong-un, demonstrated that you can engage in denuclearisation whilst at the very same time keeping your nuclear weapons complex both busy and happy. This example, from Obama, is sort of interesting considering Kim Jong-un’s 2019 new year address. As we know Kim stated there that

Accordingly, we declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures

Kim here is referring to the 2018 plenum of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party that announced the suspension of nuclear and missile testing, among other things. This is related to a proposal previously made by Siegfried Hecker to help initiate a diplomatic process between Pyongyang and Washington which he called the three nos, but there’s a subtle difference. For Hecker “the three nos” meant no better bombs, no more bombs, and no export of bombs. Kim’s formulation appears not to be the same because it does not necessarily mean “no more bombs.”

Media reports since the address have pointed out that Kim here has gilded the lily, and that’s true if you include Hecker’s “no more bombs.” Evidence suggests that North Korea continues to assemble long range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, has constructed a new long range missile operating base and appears to have a (possibly more) clandestine uranium enrichment plant for producing fissile material. Just this week media reports have repeated that observation following the publication of satellite imagery by 38North here, which is consistent with the continued operation of the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon.

Kim, as the media and liberal opinion says, is lying.

Okay, so this is where we get pedantic. Notice that Kim said North Korea has not, since April 2018, *neither* made *and* tested *nor* used *and* proliferated nuclear weapons. Those conjunctions, I can see those of analytical or logical bent salivating, matter here because they imply Kim is saying that Pyongyang has not made and tested “new” nuclear weapons, and furthermore “make” and “test” are used in the same breath.

So what, one may well ask. But making or producing “new” nuclear weapons is tricky, and that’s because of the way the established nuclear states have used that concept in their nuclear modernisation programmes. In the US, especially, the debate on Stockpile Stewardship, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, the Interoperable Warhead and the like has often centred upon the meaning of the concept “new nuclear weapon.”

Critics of these programmes, especially of the Bush II administration’s RRW concept, argued that modernisations leads to the production of new nuclear weapons because they enhance the capabilities of a nuclear weapon or, in the case of RRW envisage the production of new nuclear components (the first RRW was chosen to be based on an existing plutonium pit). The official position of Congress in the 2003 National Defense Authorization Act was that a new nuclear weapon is one based on a new nuclear explosive package. So long as the physics package of a nuclear warhead, especially the plutonium pit of the fissile core, was not new then any modifications made to an existing weapon or to a type of warhead by the labs was not new. Notice that the definition is restricted to the physics package of the warhead, not the delivery mechanism. Bush II was not able to get Congressional approval for the RRW programme. The incoming Obama administration pledged not to make any new nuclear weapons, but it nonetheless retained the Bush era commitment to significant nuclear modernisation. Obama was to argue that his approach to modernisation, which included the Interoperable Warhead (RRW lite), did not lead to the production of new nuclear weapons because no new nuclear explosive packages would be designed, assembled, and tested in the near nor long term. The programme would be based on existing plutonium pits.

That way Obama could dream about nuclear abolition, liberal opinion would endlessly write of the beauty of Obama’s dreams, all the while Obama was modernising nuclear weapons in a big way but no inconsistency here as, you see, Obama wasn’t making new nuclear weapons.

A good example of this can be found with the B61-12 modification to the B61 gravity bomb. The B61-12 modernisation programme did not involve a new plutonium pit but it did include a new tail kit and casing (among other things) that enhanced its military capabilities (earth penetration, for example) and so expands its mission profile. Despite this the B61-12 was said not to be a new nuclear weapon.

Liberal opinion had no problem accommodating all this. Indeed, nor did the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Say you adopt this as your benchmark for the concept “new nuclear weapon.” Liberal opinion certainly did. That would mean when Kim states that since April 2018 Pyongyang has not made and tested (remember the *neither* preceding and the *nor* immediately thereafter) any new nuclear weapons you would have to agree. North Korea has not produced and tested any nuclear warheads with a physics package other than those already tested.

Nowadays the nuclear weapon states have little compunction in using the concept new nuclear weapon no matter how bat shit crazy they are, so naturally we have forgotten this technical concept and the way it was used to obfuscate its everyday understanding.

That being the case, North Korea has produced nuclear weapons since April 2018 but Kim is nonetheless correct when he states that they haven’t produced any new nuclear weapons. One might even want to call this a type of quantum entanglement; nuclear weapon states produce new nuclear weapons and don’t produce new nuclear weapons at the same time. Throughout 2018 North Korea showed that it has become a past master in the two sided use of concepts much as has been exhibited by the traditional nuclear weapon states heretofore.

That’s interesting because liberal opinion has strongly upbraided North Korea for the exaggerated or downright false claims it has made regarding denuclearisation since the Singapore statement. Yet the liberals haven’t noticed that Kim is playing from Bambi’s playbook, and Obama could get away with it, of course, because he had the crucial support of liberal opinion.

Not even the commissars of red Korea can bring themselves to write majestically about Kim’s dream of denuclearisation quite in the same way liberals could write of Obama’s dream of disarmament. Next time you see a liberal making fun of North Korean propaganda you might want to remember that.