Sunday the 9th of September marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. North Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary in several ways, one of those being a military parade which almost exclusively attracted the attention of the Western media.
The military parade was a relatively subdued and toned down one. Although North Korea did not parade any ICBMs, IRBMs, or MRBMs nor feature any other aspect of its nuclear capabilities that does not mean that the parade was without nuclear relevance nor nuclear meaning. Far from it.
From what I have seen of the parade, one interesting feature was a heavier emphasis upon its socialist character than those immediately preceding. There were more red banners about, some of it even came across as more of a May Day parade, and the red star was prominently affixed to military equipment. In short, I saw more “red culture” in this parade then the last two I observed.
The parade was anticipated for intrinsic reasons, as such parades provide a window into Pyongyang’s military capabilities, but also for insight into North Korean attitudes regarding nuclear diplomacy with the United States. In the lead up to the parade there were two schools of thought among analysts of open source intelligence satellite imagery as to what would transpire. One, initially suggested by Joseph Bermudez at 38North, was that the parade might be relatively large and might feature both ICBMs, IRBMs, and MRBMs capable of delivering nuclear payloads although the evidence was acknowledged as not sufficient to be conclusive (see here and here). Jeffrey Lewis, and others, associated with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, suggested that the satellite imagery showed that the parade would be a subdued one and would most likely not feature ICBMs, IRBMs, and MRBMs (for e.g. see here ).
The Middlebury analysis was the correct one. According to numerous reports no ICBMs, IRBMs, or MRBMs were showcased during the parade. This is a good case study in the importance of political context when it comes to the analysis of geospatial open source intelligence. It appears that the heaviest military item paraded of a missile nature was the KN-06 Surface to Air Missile system, North Korea’s indigenous version of Russia’s S-300 SAM. Note that the KN-06 is a defensive, not an offensive, missile system.
The subdued military parade is widely observed as a signal of North Korea’s determination to proceed with inter-Korean and US-North Korean détente despite a renewed freeze in Washington-Pyongyang talks following Donald Trump’s cancellation of Mike Pompeo’s planned August trip to Pyongyang. The subdued parade comes after a trip to Pyongyang by Jong Ui-yong the special envoy of South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in. According to KCNA Kim Jong-un reaffirmed to Jong Ui-yong a commitment to what Pyongyang refers to as “denuclearisation” although in interesting language that included a reference to a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
Noting that it is our fixed stand and his will to completely remove the danger of armed conflict and horror of war from the Korean peninsula and turn it into the cradle of peace without nuclear weapons and free from nuclear threat, he said that the north and the south should further their efforts to realize the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula
According to Jong Ui-yong Kim Jong-un stated expressed a determination to achieve or complete denuclearisation by Donald Trump’s first term. If true that would be the first time that Kim Jong-un has expressed such a timeline. Note KCNA does not reference that claim. That’s longer than John Bolton’s one year, but much shorter than the 15 year phased approach to complete dismantlement outlined in a Stanford University study led by Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Alexander Glaser and Zia Mian of Princeton this week also published a paper in Science on a phased, verified approach to denuclearisation. I have not yet been granted access to the Science paper, as my university database does not have full access to current Science issues.
The variance between the timeline of Kim Jong-un and Siegfried Hecker is important for Kim speaks of “denuclearisation” whereas Hecker et al speak of something akin to CVID (complete, irreversible, verified, dismantlement). I am not suggesting that Hecker’s position is therefore the same as the US position, which is that CVID comes before all else only that CVID is seen as the end game in a phased approach. Dismantlement takes time, denuclearisation is quicker, and denuclearisation is the official North Korean position. That’s why, most likely, the Kim statement speaks of a time span much less than 15 years. Notice also that the Kim statement speaks of the Korean peninsula, which is a reference to the need for reciprocal US actions not just North Korean ones.
What this little aside shows is that denuclearisation as North Korea employs that concept is not the same thing as dismantlement and the two concepts cannot be interchanged as they so often are in Western commentary and analysis. The military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK illustrates Pyongyang’s understanding of denuclearisation. This concept is best understood as lowering the salience of nuclear deterrence in international relations. Say a state has a first use declaratory nuclear weapons employment policy. Say that state subsequently develops a no-first use pledge in its declaratory nuclear weapons employment policy. That is denuclearisation. When the Soviet Union and the United States signed and ratified a strategic nuclear arms control treaty that too was denuclearisation, because theoretically arms control promotes strategic stability, certainly it was presented as such to the non-nuclear weapon state signatories of the NPT. By not parading nuclear capable ICBMs, IRBMs, and MRBMs North Korea could be seen as signalling a commitment to US-DPRK détente, indeed, but also it demonstrates that it is lowering the salience of nuclear deterrence in its international relations i.e. denuclearisation. When the salience of nuclear deterrence is high nuclear weapons are brandished about in rhetoric, declaratory policy, parades, testing programmes and the like. The September 9 2018 military parade in Pyongyang can be seen as a demonstration of denuclearisation in praxis.
In that sense denuclearisation is a bit like the old adage; “out of sight, out of mind” (I owe that to a graduate student of mine). That’s not too dissimilar to the US-Israel agreed nuclear posture for Israel known as “opacity.” It’s a bit like the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. If Copenhagen works for neutrons, then it can work for the weapons initiated by them what we might refer to as the Dimona Corollary to the Copenhagen Interpretation. If you can’t see them, because we don’t show them, then they don’t exist. Wholla, denuclearisation.
I should say that this conception of denuclearisation need not be set in stone. US policy can influence North Korea’s nuclear policies, indeed they most obviously do only in the wrong direction, and adroit, meaningful, diplomacy is well worth pursuing toward that end. It has been suggested by nuclear analysts that North Korea would never agree to unilateral disarmament, which is an odd phrase given that an agreement is not something often associated with a unilateral action. Furthermore, the implicit assumption behind such a statement is that North Korea would never agree to disarm full stop which is an unsubstantiated leap of logic. It is often suggested that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are considered by Pyongyang to be a guarantee of regime survival, so therefore something that Pyongyang would never agree to give up no matter how high level the bilateral or multilateral diplomacy nor how good a deal offered. Notice that is also a leap of logic. North Korean nuclear deterrence with respect to the United States might guarantee that the United States would not attack North Korea, but that does not guarantee the survival of the Kim regime. If you don’t believe me try sending an email to Mikhail Gorbachev via the Gorbachev Foundation and ask him whether all the nuclear weapons in the world can guarantee the survival of a state.
Gorbachev is famously known to have said to his wife, Raisa, in the early 1980s that “we cannot go on living like this.” This might be a sentiment that the ruling elite in North Korea share. They may well consider that the current situation cannot last indefinitely and that, at best, nuclear deterrence buys North Korea some time and some space but, fundamentally, survival is to be achieved through a successful integration of North Korea into the strategic, economic and political architecture of Northeast Asia. A poor, miserable, isolated, and perennially underdeveloped future, albeit a nuclear armed one, sounds like no future at all.
In the KCNA statement Kim Jong-un speaks of a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. He should be made accountable for that statement. Rather than insisting upon up front CVID we should test his sincerity in the matter by making reasonable diplomatic initiatives. To keep to up front CVID is to let Kim Jong-un off the hook.
The next moves will be interesting one’s to observe as they develop. As I am sure you know Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in are to have another inter-Korean Summit, this time in Pyongyang scheduled to begin September 18, which will be devoted to the implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration. One of the guests of honour at the various markings of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK was the number 3 in the hierarchy of China, Li Zhanshu, the head of the National People’s Congress. Although, naturally, Kim Jong-un was the key figure in the 70th anniversary celebrations, formally it was the nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, and it was Kim Yong-nam who delivered a speech prior to the onset of the parade and it was reportedly devoted to economic development. It was anticipated that Xi Jinping himself would visit Pyongyang, he didn’t, however there are reports that Kim Jong-un may participate in a regional summit involving the presidents of Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea among others in Vladivostok. President Vladimir Putin has invited Kim Jong-un to that summit. If Kim Jong-un attends it might make for a diplomatic blockbuster, one notice not including the United States.
These and future developments will, needless to say, continue to be commented upon and analysed here.