Making an International Crisis into an International Crisis: North Korea Tests Short Range Ballistic Missile and Multiple Rocket Launchers in Echo of 2017

The weekend has seen two related news items from North Korea, one widely disseminated and commented upon, and the other almost universally ignored.  The former mostly is concerned with American interests, while the latter concerns starving North Koreans.  Because only Washington can have interests, naturally our attention is devoted to the first news item.

So, I’ll start with the second.

The United Nations food agencies have confirmed a North Korean report made to them, at the time of the Hanoi summit, that almost half the population of North Korea are undernourished and that a bad harvest, drought, and a TB outbreak mean North Korea faces a food shortage for 2019. Furthermore, the UN food agency report confirmed that, given this, food rations in North Korea have been cut

“Official rations are down to 300 grammes – under 11 ounces – per person per day, the lowest ever for this time of year, the U.N. said following a food security assessment it carried out at Pyongyang’s request from March 29 to April 12.”

That’s 300g per person per day. Your dog eats more.

North Korea is also, according to the spokesperson of the UN food agency Herve Verhoosel, on the brink of famine

“Verhoosel said the word “famine” was not being used in the current crisis, but it might come to that in a few months or years. “The situation is very serious today – that’s a fact.”

In separate coverage by Al Jazeera it was noted that the UN report stated US led multilateral “maximum pressure” economic sanctions are contributing to the severity of the food crisis

“The shortfall is the result of climatic conditions such as “dry spells, heatwaves and flooding” as well as a lack of fuel and fertilisers – in part caused by international sanctions aimed at getting leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons programme.”

To the extent that such things are noticed, they usually are celebrated. It shows that our tough economic sanctions are working, so are something for us to be pleased about. We only get excited when the usual satellite imagery fare shows a Chinese or Russian vessel engaged in sanctions busting. The sadism of the rich and comfortable knows no bounds. Sometimes it’s pointed out that the sanctions are not having the desired effect, of getting Kim Jong-un to disarm (itself false, for regime change is what they’re about), so should be incrementally eased so long as Pyongyang makes concessions. That position is also odious, for it is based on the view that our crimes against humanity should be ameliorated only when we get something in return for our benevolence.

All well understood by Genghis Khan and the Athenian diplomats sent to negotiate with Melos.

The concept “international crisis” is one well worth parsing. There’s a technical definition in academic international relations which has it, kind of roughly, that a crisis is something that has an impact on the stability of world or regional order. But the operative, though undeclared, definition is that a crisis is something that affects the interests of the rich and powerful. Starving North Koreans are neither rich nor powerful, so their plight does not quite reach the standard of an international crisis.

The other news item, the one we are supposed to focus on, was the test launch, claimed by Pyongyang to be an operational-reliability test, of a number of multiple rocket launch systems and a tactical guided weapon. The former included the solid fuelled KN-09 300mm MLRS which has a range of about 190-200km.  The tactical guided part in the above formulation, however, was especially noteworthy. North Korea has flight tested its first ballistic missile since the war scare of 2017, a short range ballistic missile that can be described as a North Korean version of the Russian Iskander solid fuelled ballistic missile. NK News has a series of images of the SRBM during the flight test, which are sourced from KCNA.

This makes three weapons tests that have garnered our attention since November 2018, one before Hanoi and two thereafter. The KN-09 itself could be described as a tactical guided weapon, as in the US nomenclature it is considered a CRBM (close range ballistic missile on account of the presence of a guidance package). Of the three tests this is the first whose weapons we can be sure about, and which prominently featured imagery of the systems tested and the presence of a beaming Kim Jong-un.

The extended range of the KN-09, relative to Pyongyang’s other artillery forces, is often seen in two contexts. Firstly, deployment along the front lines near the DMZ for precision targeting of high value US and South Korean military and strategic assets including command and intelligence centres given the guidance package. Secondly, the KN-09 can target all of Seoul and so therefore could subject any part of Seoul to area suppression fire potentially subjecting that area to high civilian casualties. The KCNA report of the weekend test stated

“The purpose of the drill was to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons by defence units in the frontline area and on the eastern front.”

The Iskander like SRMB also gives North Korea the ability to engage in relatively precise strikes against high value targets in much of South Korea. Some variants of the Russian Iskander SRBM have ranges just under the (now defunct) INF floor of 500km. It is unlikely that the North Korean Iskander has the same technical capabilities as the Russian Iskander, but the operational intent in terms of precision strike is clear enough.  One should also note that the Russian Iskander can be nuclear armed, and should North Korea resume developmental nuclear testing Pyongyang could go further down the road of miniaturisation toward tactical nuclear weapons (a bit like Pakistan).

I would suggest that, as I have written here often, we are climbing an escalation ladder with North Korea. Over the past week North Korea reacted strongly to a claim from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the US has other options to call upon should denuclearisation diplomacy with North Korea not achieve the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear, and related, programmes. This is an obvious reference to military strike options, and we saw some discussion of this during the week too in the media. By test launching, in such flamboyant style, a long range MLRS and an SRBM Pyongyang has reminded Washington (but also Seoul) that it too possesses precision strike options.

The echoes of 2017 are loud and clear. The solid propelled nature of both the KN-09 and the North Korean Iskander like SRBM should give us some pause for thought. If 2017 was the year of the LPE 2020 might be the year of the SRB.

Trump’s refrains, for domestic political effect, that he has negotiated a testing moratorium with North Korea gives Kim Jong-un leverage. Trump prior to Hanoi himself was reported as saying that so long as Pyongyang wasn’t testing, he’s satisfied. Naturally, that gives Kim leverage to exploit especially in an election year, and he isn’t satisfied with a situation where almost half the population is starving. Trump’s position is based on a lie, of course. North Korea suspended missile and nuclear testing unilaterally at an April 2018 plenum of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, not because of a negotiation with Trump.

This is where the other news item, the more important one, becomes related. Thomas Schelling once described the essence of nuclear deterrence as the holding of populations as hostages. This is precisely what the United States, and the United Nations, are doing with economic sanctions. They are holding the population of North Korea as hostages. But as we know North Korea has the hydrogen bomb and the ICBM to deliver it to the continental United States, so it too is holding hostages following Schelling. In an article a few years ago for the University of Melbourne I spoke about what Schelling called “the threat that leaves something to chance.” The themes of that article are relevant for today’s emerging situation.

We have highly restrictive economic sanctions on North Korea to bend the regime to our will, if not collapse, and in turn Pyongyang has an incentive to ride a ladder of brinkmanship in the absence of sanctions relief reached through diplomacy. That’s because the multilateral sanctions are formally locked in via the UN, and Beijing, Moscow and Seoul will not want to lose access to US markets on account of North Korean sanctions relief. They can do little more than keep Kim afloat. The incentive for Kim is to use his weapons that he has invested resources into building for a return. There’s little point in them sitting around doing nothing so the slime in the Oval Office can brag on Twitter about the absence of testing while the North Korean population starves and might starve some more.

The United States, however, has shown throughout the nuclear age that when its power and prestige as a great, indeed hegemonic, power is on the line it is quite prepared to tolerate high odds of nuclear war. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the essence of which was the perceived power and credibility of Washington, President Kennedy was willing, in his own words, to run a risk of nuclear war of one third-to-even. Kim needs to do more than just test an MLRS and a SRBM to make Washington accede to his conception of denuclearisation. He will need to cross the Suez Canal. I have written in the article accessible below about what that might entail.

North Korea needs to turn what is an actual international crisis into an international crisis in the operative sense. But here’s the thing. The 99% at home have that power too, and it’s far better that we use that power rather than Kim Jong-un.