The Melian Dialogue and the Singapore Summit

The previous week I wrote of US intelligence assessments on North Korea’s nuclear programme, which suggests that North Korea is not committed to nuclear disarmament let along complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement of the type long demanded by the United States. I had argued that the Singapore summit and its aftermath shows us that what we are seeing is a version of the Melian Dialogue, only in reverse.

This week’s developments further underscore this analysis.

The week began with the publication of analysis by researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies of satellite imagery of facilities taken to be associated with North Korea’s ballistic missile programme, in particular its solid fuelled ballistic missile programme. The imagery shows that North Korea is upgrading those facilities, especially the Chemical Material Institute at Hamhung which is responsible for producing the solid motor casing and motor nozzles for North Korea’s solid fuel missile programme. Reported leaks published by The Diplomat from the intelligence community suggested also that North Korea has not produced any additional Pukgugksong-2 solid fuelled MRBMs but has produced more, although it would appear not too many more, TELs for the Pukgugksong-2. The Nation had published a highly critical overview of the analysis of the satellite imagery however one its key claims was not terribly strong, the bit about putting experts in quotation marks I will leave aside as best not fit for further comment. That is, it was stated that overhead satellite imagery does not show us what is occurring inside the relevant facilities. There are two things to be said here.

Firstly, the analysis infers, reasonably, a link between Kim Jong-un’s statements about increasing production of solid fuelled missiles visiting the Chemical Material Institute in August 2017 and current external evidence of upgrades to the relevant facilities which are in accord with the directive then issued. Secondly, the imagery shows upgrades and apparent preparation for upgrades to three distinct facilities associated with the solid fuelled missile programme, that is facilities associated with the production of components in addition to the solid motor casing and the motor nozzle at Hamhung. That interlinkage between distinct though related facilities leads to a reasonable inference as to what may be occurring inside. At any rate, we have the precautionary principle.

One of the interesting things about Kim’s visit was the partial glimpse of a filament winding machine, which is used to wind the composite material making for a strong yet lightweight solid motor casing. Given the partial look at the machine, it was not possible to see whether the machine had a length and diameter suitable for an IRBM or even an ICBM. One of the world’s largest filament winding machines has been recently developed by Roth Composite Machinery to support the production of the P102 solid rocket booster of the Ariane-6 space launch vehicle. That winding machine has a length of 17m, a diameter of 3.6m and the winding mandrel has a mass of 120 tonnes.

The upgrades to the facilities associated with North Korea’s solid fuel missile programme are also consistent with Kim Jong-un’s New Year address where he stated North Korea would move to “mass produce” the missiles and standardised nuclear warheads supporting the strategic nuclear force of the Korean Peoples Army. Kim Jong-un is doing what he said he would be doing.

This is all hardly sign of a state thinking about the complete dismantlement of its nuclear weapons capabilities.

The other main development has been on the diplomatic front. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is due to land in Pyongyang for further talks with senior North Korean officials likely also to include Kim Jong-un as previously. North Korea since the Singapore summit on the denuclearisation front has done precisely nothing. The US, however, has shifted its position on denuclearisation and that for highly revealing reasons.

Pompeo changed the language from the normal US position of complete, verified, irreversible dismantlement to “final, fully verified denuclearisation.” The final part is the interesting part, because it suggests a step-by-step process more akin to North Korea’s traditional view of denuclearisation. It appears that this formulation was adopted because the North in separate preparatory talks with the US envoy Sung Kim prior to Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang refused to agree to the US formulation, indeed Pyongyang appears not to have agreed to a definition of any of the key terms associated with CVID or key terms of any agreement.

The United States has seemingly shifted its position because it is trying to get what it can get. That is the advice the Athenians gave to the Melians in the Melian Dialogue; the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must and so the weak, the Athenians advised the Melians, should be realistic and seek to get what they can get. The shifting diplomatic goal posts on denuclearisation show that nuclear weapons can make of the weak, the strong. The North Koreans are not nearly as weak as Melos given their strategic nuclear capability and do not need to suffer, as it were, as much as Washington would have them think they must. They are seeking to get what they can get, and it is Washington that now needs to be tempered by a good dose of realism.

The South Koreans, reportedly, have suggested that the United States drop its language on denuclearisation and instead adopt what it calls “mutual threat reduction.” This is a good idea. I have long written here that the rational approach now is the pursuit of strategic stability through a nuclear freeze that locks in the minimum of North Korean minimum deterrence as Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington pursue mutual and balanced conventional force reductions on the Korean peninsula and work toward establishing a permanent peace. It is the minimum deterrence that gives North Korea the confidence to pull back the artillery and the armoured and motorised infantry corps from the south. All this should and can be pursued under an aspirational commitment to denuclearisation.

The problem with much of the critical analysis on denuclearisation doesn’t take the form suggested by the article in The Nation linked above. The problem is that lot of the critical analysis of North Korean denuclearisation commitments are made without any alternative approaches suggested. Analysing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and intentions with respect to denuclearisation is highly valuable and shows up Trump’s summitry to be the farce that it is, but it leaves the obsession with denuclearisation intact indeed it only fuels that obsession. In this way the liberal arms control community can become a part of the problem not the solution. Our obsession with denuclearisation can easily lead to a shift toward militarised forms of counter-proliferation given that denuclearisation is not an obsession shared by Pyongyang. We need to consider alternatives to it. Mutual threat reduction on the above terms is just such an alternative. One might reject this because that dents the credibility of US power, but that brings us back to the reverse Melian Dialogue.

Earlier in the week KCNA carried an intriguing report, the implications of which were not well picked up. Some minor mention of the report was made but a key aspect was missed That is, the report implicitly suggested that South Korea should forget about placating the US on denuclearisation and negotiate a separate peace with North Korea. I have argued that it appears that North Korea has adopted a formal commitment to pursue denuclearisation under the Panmunjom Declaration to provide South Korea political space to pursue bilateral negotiations.

The other thing definitely worth mentioning here is that the US seeming shift to final, fully verified denuclearisation also follows for domestic political reasons. Reading between the lines you get the real sense that Washington is seeking an agreement to support Donald Trump’s domestic political standing given his inflated post Singapore rhetoric. This what a Reuters news report on the week’s diplomacy stated

U.S. officials have since been trying to flesh out an agreement that critics say is short on substance and map a route to a deal that might live up to Trump’s enthusiastic portrayal of the summit outcome

The Trump administration appears to be looking for Kim Jong-un to take it out of a tight political bind and that not far off from the mid term congressional elections. Governor Mike Huckabee not long ago had a disgraceful image on Twitter of what he purported to be the campaign committee of the congressional Democrats.

Here is the chair of the Republican campaign committee, if Trump can hire him that is.