The situation on the Korean peninsula is moving fast, and moving fast in the wrong direction. I don’t quite know where to begin. With some of the old stuff, only days old mind you, or the very latest development.
Let’s start with the very latest development. North Korea has conducted a static hot test of a large liquid propellant engine (LPE) for a ballistic missile at what Pyongyang calls the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground . KCNA carried the following statement by a spokesman from the Academy of National Defence Science
“A very important test took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on the afternoon of December 7, 2019.
The Academy of the National Defence Science of the DPRK made a report on the successful result of the test of great significance to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
The results of the recent important test will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK once again in the near future.“
The static hot test of a LPE at Sohae came on the same day CNN reported on the latest satellite imagery of the engine test stand. The imagery was provided by Planet Labs and the analysis by researchers at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies. That imagery demonstrated renewed activity at the site, and the presence of a large (approx 10 metre length) blue shipping container (hello Nenoksa). Both, especially the shipping container, suggested that a LPE static hot test was in the works.
The North Koreans aren’t messing around. In short, it looks as if Kim Jong Un’s button just got a bit bigger.
Although the above quoted statement does not say the engine tested at Sohae was new, it does imply it. Furthermore, the test was conducted by the Academy of National Defence Science, rather than North Korea’s space agency, and that suggests it was military related. The part in the statement where it says the test “will have an important effect on changing the strategic position of the DPRK” and that “once again in the near future” also implied a military related test. This sentence, in turn, implies the testing of a new (hence “changing”) engine, rather than the March 18 Revolution or Paektusan Engine a two engine cluster which forms the booster stage of the Hwasong-15 ICBM. Furthermore, the “once again” part implies we have ourselves a new LPE ICBM.
The reference to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea is also important. The 3rd plenum of the Central Committee of the 7th Congress, in April 2018, rubber stamped a decision on the suspension of long range missile and nuclear testing made higher up in the food chain. The 5th Central Committee has been convened by the Politburo for the latter part of December, where doubtless this suspension will be discussed and whatever decision has been made with regard to it announced and rubber stamped. I will say more about that in a subsequent post, so I hold my pen for now.
Hitherto most have assumed that the next ICBM North Korea would develop would be a solid fuel ICBM. That assumption may well be wrong. When Kim Jong Un visited the Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Science in August 2017 one of the interesting posters we saw depicted what was titled as the Hwasong-13 ICBM. Today’s test might be related to this.
Perhaps Pyongyang has tested a cluster of March 18 Revolution engines. It is possible, moreover, that this was a reliability test of the March 18 Revolution engine. The KCNA statement, at least thus far, is not accompanied by imagery. Until we see images of the actual test we cannot be certain, but so far as I can see the statement from the Academy of National Defence Science suggests a new engine.
That leads to the question as to why North Korea would build a new liquid engine propelled ICBM if it already has one. One possibility is that a new engine would provide more thrust, for why develop a new engine with the same or less thrust, which in turn would lead to an ICBM with greater throw weight. The two cluster configuration for the Hwasong-15 ICBM is estimated to have 80 tonnes of thrust. North Korea’s September 2017 hydrogen bomb test was estimated to have a yield of about 250kt of TNT (I think a bit more), which is a quarter of a megatonne. An ICBM powered by higher thrust engines with a larger throw weight than the Hwasong-15 ICBM could mean North Korea is developing a hydrogen bomb in the megatonne class, an unambiguous city busting weapon. The reentry vehicle of the Hwasong-15 has a large volume so I doubt a new LPE ICBM would be related to penetration aids for overcoming ballistic missile defence. That would also apply to a MIRV capability, however one of the interesting things about North Korea’s testing of shorter range missiles this year has been manoeuvrable warheads. A MaRV ICBM is also a possibility, which would put paid to all those (false) claims North Korea doesn’t have a working RV for an ICBM.
The engine test stand at Sohae played an important role at the Singapore summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. At that summit an agreement was reached, reportedly, that was not reflected in the summit communique. Pyongyang pledged to dismantle the engine test stand at Sohae in exchange for a declaration ending the Korean war, not to be confused with a formal peace treaty, and the suspension of US-South Korea military exercises. Up to that point North Korea had suspended long range missile testing and closed, not collapsed, the tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
Not long thereafter North Korea stopped its disablement activities at Sohae, especially after working level talks in Pyongyang led by Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, did not result in progress on an end of war declaration. North Korea accused Washington of demanding, up front, the complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme before taking any corresponding action of interest to Pyongyang. North Korea at this stage of the diplomacy had made substantial progress toward dismantlement of the test stand at Sohae. Subsequently the engine test stand was reassembled.
In the reports, and remarks made by analysts and commentators, this aspect to the Sohae test stand was basically airbrushed out of history. The reason for this is clear enough. There are two propaganda systems at work here. One, theirs, and the other, ours. Theirs exaggerates the disarmament actions Pyongyang has taken both before and after Singapore. My interest is not with theirs but rather ours. The proximate objective of both is to blame the other party for the collapse in the Singapore process. The idea behind this is to prepare both respective domestic populations for a rough ride in 2020 through a claim of innocence. As analysts and commentators in relatively more open and democratic societies we are under no obligation to conform to our propaganda system, as must be done in North Korea, yet we still do what is required of us. In this case, that’s airbrushing the place taken up in the diplomatic record by the Sohae engine testing facilities.
The most important near term role analysts can make toward defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis and encouraging a broader peace on the Korean peninsula is the deconstruction of our propaganda systems. Should the view North Korea has been a uniquely and singly perfidious negotiating partner take firm and widespread hold it will be very difficult to reverse a likely escalatory dynamic which could led to nuclear war and the death of millions in fire and fury unlike any seen in history.
My own view is that the Sohae test is not a type of “signalling” from Pyongyang about North Korean resolve much as this will doubtless feature in news reports and media commentary. North Korea, in the by now infamous KCNA statement promising an unmentioned “Christmas gift” for the United States, made an important statement just about universally ignored. I have discussed that statement in my previous post. Pyongyang announced that it would be taking the bomb out of the basement, now that the denuclearisation process has reached a dead end. The Sohae engine test means exactly that. It’s not “signalling.” It’s North Korea progressing its nuclear programme out in the open through the completion of whatever research and development programmes it has hitherto been conducting in the basement. The North Korean bomb is not going to be a bomb in the basement.
I will discuss the other recent developments in a separate post. That post was in the works, but the developments at Sohae required a separate, although of course related, analysis.