On Thursday November 8, hot on the heels of the midterm elections, North Korea’s envoy, Kim Yong-chol, was to meet Mike Pompeo and Steve Biegun in New York, however the meeting was abruptly cancelled. Multiple sources, including South Korean officials and the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have stated that it was the North Koreans that cancelled this meeting.
It is not quite clear why. President Trump has stated, echoed by the administration, that an unspecified scheduling conflict was responsible for this. One news report that I have seen suggested that the North Koreans cancelled the meeting after it became clear that the North Korean envoy would not be granted an audience with Trump. Mike Pompeo and Steve Biegun have been granted an audience with Kim Jong-un, although Kim has also expressed his displeasure with developments by refusing to met Pompeo when the latter was in Pyongyang, so North Korean umbrage could be an indication of the status it feels should be accorded it as a nuclear power.
On November 2 KCNA, the North Korean press agency, carried a commentary from Kwon Jong-gun, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies, Kim Jong-un’s Georgy Arbatov, which stated that North Korea might reverse the decision of its April Central Committee plenary session which suspended the Byungjin line policy of simultaneously pursuing its nuclear weapons programme and economic development in favour of focusing on the latter. As Robert Carlin, a superb analyst, has emphasised at 38North Kwon stated that North Korea “could” do this not necessarily that it “would” should Washington continue with what Kwon called its current approach of “all-take-but-no-give.”
Reports continue to suggest that a key sticking point for Pyongyang is US reluctance to move on sanctions relief in exchange for closing the tunnels at North Korea’s nuclear test site and moves to dismantle its Tongchang-ri missile/rocket engine test stand. The suspension of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site was decided (or better still announced) by the April plenum and the Tongchang-ri engine test stand dismantlement was agreed to at Singapore.
On November 5 South Korea and the United States began small scale military exercises involving 500 US and RoK marines. The interesting thing here is that these exercises were suspended indefinitely following the Singapore summit, so Pyongyang would see this as the US backsliding on its commitments. By December Washington and Seoul will decide on what military exercises they will conduct in 2019. So, we have here the possibility of a resumption of North Korean missile testing and US-South Korean military exercises in 2019 which could very well bring us back to the dangerous days of 2017. You would think that not to be too likely so long as Pyongyang and Seoul continue to work toward implementing the Panmunjom Declaration, but both North Korea and the US are explicitly leaving open that prospect which in itself is important as I shall show.
Reentry Vehicle Dynamics and North Korean Missile Testing
Quite what Kwon Jong-gun had in mind regarding the resumption of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme wasn’t clear as North Korea, so far as we know, continues to produce fissile materials and to assemble Hwasong-15 ICBMs. Pyongyang also continues to develop the facilities associated with its solid fuel missile programme. Should North Korea engage in a resumption of missile testing a key issue would be whether any tests will be done for demonstration, i.e. political, effects or whether for developmental reasons. If the latter, it could involve the testing of a solid rocket motor for an intermediate range ballistic missile which would be handy for those in the US looking to deploy an intermediate range missile in Asia post INF. Here’s a nifty video of the static testing of an SLS solid rocket booster (upgraded version of Space Shuttle SRB).
Kwon’s comments have led to renewed expressions of scepticism about the reentry capabilities of North Korea’s long range missiles, especially of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs. The argument appears to be that North Korea has not demonstrated it has an RV that is able to protect a nuclear warhead from the stress of reentry into the atmosphere (launched by an ICBM) therefore Pyongyang might seek to demonstrate this very capability through an MET test of the Hwasong-14 or 15. It should be stressed that “demonstrated” capability is not the same as being in possession of a capability. One of the key empirical pillars to this oft argued position is video footage of North Korea’s July 28 2017 Hwasong-14 test by NHK, a Japanese TV outlet, which some say appeared to show its RV burning up upon reentry. I’ve never bought this view, and have expressed that scepticism several times here. However, a timely and very carefully constructed analysis just published by David Wright, James Acton and Jeffrey Lewis goes a long way to undermining this key empirical premise to the RV argument.
Have a look especially at figure 7 and table 4. The authors have obtained extra footage from NHK to reconstruct the trajectory of the alleged RV and its altitude, and using knowledge from open sources regarding the possible dimensions, shape and mass of North Korea’s hydrogen bomb RV, in order to estimate its ballistic coefficient they reach the conclusion that the object captured in the video was not an RV oriented nose first (as it entered the atmosphere) and affixed to an upper stage (given the estimated altitude) protecting a mock warhead of 250-500kg mass the likely mass range of North Korea’s thermonuclear warhead. However, the estimated ballistic missile coefficient is consistent with an RV of mass 100kg affixed to a tumbling upper stage with 150kg of residual fuel. That is, the RV is lighter than the warhead and RV combination of an armed Hwasong-14 ICBM or a Hwasong-14 ICBM with a mock warhead of equal mass to an armed warhead. This could have been because the Hwasong-14 was launched on a highly lofted trajectory and the test was not concerned with testing the reentry dynamics of the RV.
Let’s say North Korea resumes missile testing. It could demonstrate that it has an RV able to withstand the stresses of reentry consistent with ICBM ranges by engaging in an MET test of the Hwasong-14 or 15. Assuming this to be the demonstration of a capability Pyongyang knows it already possesses this would, to no small degree, be a type of political test. However, an MET test out to ICBM ranges would be perceived as highly provocative and reported as such. A static test of a solid rocket booster would not be reported, one thinks, as breathlessly as an MET test after all, hey, it’s just a bit of fireworks on the ground right? Wrong. From a developmental perspective a static hot test of a new solid rocket motor would be far more significant for it would be a big step toward long range solid fuel missiles. That way Pyongyang could receive a double benefit; the test would be perceived as less provocative than demonstrating it has a functioning RV for the Hwasong-14-or Hwasong-15-or both but putting some political pressure on the Trump administration nonetheless in addition to being a significant technical advance in North Korea’s missile capabilities.
Which brings us back to the main point.
As developments have proceeded over the last month, I have had cause to be reminded of an article I wrote for the University of Melbourne quite a while ago on what I called Pyongyang’s “threat that leaves something to chance.” There I argued that North Korea might consider its nuclear weapons as given it the ability to manipulate external perceptions of risk in order to coerce or lever the eradication or diminution of economic sanctions. In a sense this is what Kwon Jong-gun has just done. Furthermore, the past fortnight’s developments have further solidified my own view that North Korea thinks that the development of its nuclear weapons programme is what brought the United States to the Singapore summit. As Robert Carlin points out this view was implicit to Kwon’s remarks
In the commentary, Kwon put forth what may actually be a high-level perception in Pyongyang—that the US did not get serious about talks until the North demonstrated in 2017 that it could strike the US mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and made clear that the DPRK nuclear threat to the US mainland was “only a matter of time.” A worst-case interpretation of that position, unstated by Kwon, is that the North might at some point in the future decide the only way to get the US into productive talks would be to demonstrate even more starkly its ICBM capability.
This is entirely consistent with the tenor of my article. The thing here is, however, North Korea would be wrong to think that the further development of its nuclear weapons programme is what brought President Trump to Singapore. Much more likely is that talks with North Korea was one of the strategies that the White House used for domestic US politics, especially prior to the midterm elections. Now that those elections are over the political capital accruing to the White House obtained through North Korean diplomacy declines. Perhaps, Kwon’s statements were meant to be politically embarrassing for the administration given that Trump has often spoken of how he has stopped Pyongyang from engaging in missile and nuclear weapons testing. If so, Pyongyang underestimates the ability of the administration to spin a circumlocution for its supporter base, no matter how different to prevailing policy that circumlocution might be. Kim Jong-un should understand this, after all the Kim dynasty has been doing the same for decades.
The other significant factor that led to the Singapore summit was Washington’s concern that it would be isolated from the diplomatic and economic action in Northeast Asia as inter-Korean detente proceeded. I would suggest this would be a more important factor than concerns regarding nuclear proliferation in North Korea. If Washington was seriously concerned by this, it would have made an offer Pyongyang couldn’t refuse a long time ago. So, if North Korea is concerned that Washington is dragging its feet, and in doing so blocking further significant progress in Korean rapprochement, then it should rededicate itself to political, security, and economic diplomacy with Seoul to isolate Washington. The prospect of diplomatic isolation is what ultimately brought the Obama administration to the JCPOA with Iran. By resuming missile or nuclear testing or both Pyongyang would undercut détente with South Korea, something Washington wouldn’t be too concerned about as it prevents its own diplomatic isolation.
Yet, it appears that Pyongyang perceives that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities give it the leverage to coerce diplomatic engagement, reversing its political and economic isolation, and that clearly involves manipulating external perceptions of risk. That last part is what the “threat that leaves something to chance” is essentially about.
Now this is the thing. The Trump administration appears to think exactly the same thing. According to Nikki Haley, back in May 2018
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said she used President Donald Trump’s unpredictability to get the Chinese to back tougher international sanctions on North Korea.
“I would always use the unpredictability of President Trump to help me get the sanctions through,” Haley told an audience at the University of Houston on Tuesday, recounting conversations with her Chinese counterparts.
This is, of course, very redolent of the “madman theory” of Richard Nixon. Here President Nixon is reputed to have told one of his key advisers, Bob Haldeman, that Hanoi, Moscow and Beijing need to be warned that Nixon is unpredictable, obsessed by communists, and might use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Should such a threat be conveyed Nixon held that the Soviet Union and China would compel Hanoi to accede to US terms at the negotiating table. This led to the secret madman nuclear alert of 1969, which was accompanied, reputedly, by provocative actions near Soviet airspace by nuclear armed US aircraft. Ironically, Nixon formed this view on account of his perception of how President Eisenhower ended the Korean War (Nixon was Eisenhower’s Vice President), namely by threatening to use nuclear weapons in (north) Korea. This is a commonly held view in the US. The Trump administration appears to hold that it was “maximum pressure” sanctions, facilitated by a madman theory nuclear threat, that brought Kim Jong-un to Singapore.
We have two men, both with the proverbial button sitting on their desks, who appear to think that risky nuclear posturing and maximum pressure is what brought the other to diplomacy. Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, madmen both.
Should the diplomatic process on the Korean peninsula collapse that dual impression could lead to a nuclear crisis, one more acute than that of 2017.