North Korea’s Clarification of Denuclearisation and the Yeongjeo-dong Missile Base Controversy

The future is something better influenced than predicted. By the same token, North Korean intentions regarding denuclearisation are better influenced than predicted, and outside powers, the US especially, can influence those intentions. These are point I have made often here over much of 2018. The debate on North Korea’s intentions has ratchetted up a notch following the stalling of both US-DPRK and DPRK-ROK diplomacy, reports in the Western media of an alleged grand deception by Pyongyang regarding its intentions on denuclearisation, and a North Korean statement publicly clarifying its position on denuclearisation.

But nearly always absent is the observation that what we do can influence their intentions, and if their intentions are contrary to disarmament then our history of military interventionism has as much, if not more, to do with this than the internal structure of the North Korean state.

The debate on North Korean intentions, arising from a combination of the above, has now touched off a discussion of alternatives to current US policy on North Korea. That, at least, is a healthy development as for too long the debate has focused on criticising Trump administration policy, a critique based on an analysis of how the administration’s representation of North Korea’s position and actions are at variance with reality, without really offering an alternative to it.

It could well be the case, however, that this broaching of alternatives comes too little, too late. As matters have stood hitherto the main alternative to Trump administration policy has come from an interesting convergence of liberal and neoconservative opinion which would rather abandon high level diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington and that without the US making any concessions or positive inducements to Pyongyang supportive of the parallel process of détente between North and South Korea.

What applies to North Korea also applies to the United States. Washington’s intentions and future actions are better influenced than predicted, and US foreign policy, in theory, can be influenced through political action by its citizens who have a much wider scope for this than their counterparts in North Korea. But if the discussion, analysis and interpretation of developments on the Korean peninsula should be dominated by the narrative of a grand North Korean deception which seeks concessions from Washington whilst demonstrating a false intent to disarm or denuclearise then we risk heading back to something like the stand-off of 2017 as it suggests come what may Pyongyang’s intentions are fixed and beyond external influence. In a democracy when, for whatever reason, information is distorted in the public sphere the likelihood of irrational policy outcomes becomes high. That means analysts have a responsibility to ensure that the information that they present to the public is not distorted nor ought they, to the best of their ability, allow its distortion. The political context looms large here.

Just as an aside, Leon Sigal has a good two part discussion of some of the history of US-DPRK nuclear diplomacy here and here. Sigal’s discussion covers old ground, but it is timely and useful. That’s because it undercuts the dominant fairly tale presentation in the media of these things. There are two Goldilocks like positions. The first, North Korean, has North Korea a virtuous just right state pursuing socialist construction and peace, but which faces implacable hostility from a Washington seeking to thwart the sagacious and wise leadership at every turn. The second, ours, has the United States an enlightened just right state entrusted with the wise stewardship of the international order to the benefit of all offering one peace overture after another to Pyongyang but thwarted at every turn by an implacable hostility from an intrinsically deranged rogue state. That is why much that Sigal surveys is out of history in Western discourse. The first position is widely adopted in North Korea, for understandable reasons. By all accounts criticism and reeeducation in North Korea are not pleasant experiences for both individual and family. But the second is much more interesting given that the GULAG does not await those among us who think otherwise.

This leads me to another aside. There’s this genre in the West on what we might call little and weird North Korea. One observes a lot of exposes of the absurdity of North Korean propaganda, especially regarding its ubiquity a key facet of the genre. That ubiquity is presented as something queer. One interesting aspect to this genre is how many of the propaganda staples of our own societies are simply taken for granted, and the ubiquity of propaganda within them especially is not even perceived let alone discussed and compared. An example of where this, to a degree, was not the case can be found in an interesting Unreported World documentary embedded below. Note how at ~4 mins in the reporter, going down the elevator of the Pyongyang metro, reflects upon the total absence of advertisements and corporate logos.

Kim Jong-un and Ronald McDonald are nowhere to be seen. But compare that to our metro systems, where advertisements, that is corporate propaganda, are ubiquitous before you enter, as you enter, as you wait on the platform, as you sit on the train, and as you pass one advertisement after another easily visible beyond the tracks and all designed to turn you into a misinformed consumer making irrational choices. Which is queerer? The mural here and there of the great leaders on the metro of a highly authoritarian society or the thorough immersion in corporate propaganda under freedom of our own? Let’s get back on topic.

North Korea’s Clarification

The North Korean clarification on its meaning of the phrase, “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” was carried by KCNA, available here, but it takes the form of a report on the commentary of Jong Hyon. This commentator has made two important interventions prior to this both carefully analysed by Robert Carlin at 38Noth here and here. One interesting aspect to Jong Hyon’s interventions, as others of a similar nature, is how they attribute the stalling of nuclear diplomacy to the political climate in the United States, especially prior to the November midterm elections, and to machinations of administration officials rather than Donald Trump per se.

Now the Jong Hyon clarification wasn’t really news, it was a further statement of North Korea’s long standing construal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, but it was widely reported as such. There’s a good, brief, critical reflection of that reporting in a 38North editorial here. For the likes of the National Security Adviser to the President, John Bolton, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the (departing) Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, the clarification wasn’t news either. But it may have been for Donald Trump and that may have been the very purpose behind the clarification. The denuclearisation clarification, like Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran atomic dossier, could have been intended to have an audience of one namely Donald Trump. North Korean commentary, including from Jong Hyon, has previously put forth the view that officials around Trump, especially Mike Pompeo, have been distorting the meaning of denuclearisation and Pyongyang has notably refrained from criticising Donald Trump directly. The Jong Hyon commentary is based on the view that the stalling of nuclear diplomacy follows a misunderstanding of North Korea’s position hence the clarification. If that misunderstanding is taken to be Trump’s own misunderstanding, then the clarification would indeed take on an audience of one.

Very recently we have seen a softening of some of the previously stated US preconditions for a second Kim-Trump summit so the clarification might well have hit its target. It’s hard to be sure about these things. Pyongyang, as noted above, has attributed US unwillingness to proceed beyond the Singapore communique to the political climate in the US, especially liberal and neoconservative opinion which has opposed the talks. By issuing the clarification Pyongyang undercuts the grand deception narrative, however that is true only to the extent that the clarification is understood to be a clarification of long standing policy. A good part of the media has presented the clarification as a statement of something new, and presented the reciprocal obligations that North Korea’s position calls for as ambit claims consistent with the grand deception. Robert Carlin has here a good discussion of some of the background to the clarification at 38North, to which we return.

Note that the clarification makes the same point as I above regarding information in the public sphere and rationality

By replacing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with “the denuclearization of north Korea”, the U.S. tries to cause the optical illusion of the people in their view of the DPRK-U.S. relations, and stop them from making a correct judgment

The clarification thereupon immediately goes on the state what Kim Jong-il might have referred to as “the seed” of the North Korean position

The U.S. must have a clear understanding of the phrase, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and study geology, in particular, before it is too late. When we refer to the Korean peninsula, they include both the area of the DPRK and the area of south Korea where aggression troops including the nuclear weapons of the U.S. are deployed. When we refer to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it, therefore, means removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted. This should be clearly understood. Therefore, it is a self-evident truth that the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is a joint work which can never come true unless the DPRK and the U.S. make joint efforts

The key ingredient in the seed is the element of reciprocity and because of that element Pyongyang’s position is based on a step-by-step process involving like-for-like actions. What possible reciprocal actions Pyongyang envisages the US taking, as Carling points out, was provided in a July 2016 statement of its denuclearisation policy. As Carlin states that 2016 statement is centred upon the Korean peninsula and its vicinity, and is less restrictive than the Jong Hyon formulation which speaks of US capabilities to target the Korean peninsula. A notable feature to the July 2016 statement was that it was shorn of rhetoric regarding US nuclear disarmament, an ambit claim, however rather than pursuing the matter the Obama administration immediately sanctioned North Korea on human rights grounds. Note that the current clarification comes hot on the heels of the US sanctioning three senior North Korean officials on account of human rights. This is significant to the extent that, for North Korea, it demonstrates the US hasn’t reconciled to the nature of the North Korean regime and will engage in what it regards to be hostile acts irrespective of what might happen on the nuclear front. The sanctioning itself is obviously cynical in nature, the Trump administration is not noted for a concern with human rights but that generalises to other administrations as well, and it is the type of cynicism that has the effect of undermining the concept of human rights to the delight of torturers everywhere.

Some aspects of North Korea’s formulation pose difficulties. The deployment (Trident SSBN patrols) and deployability (Guam) of US strategic assets in Northeast Asia is not just based on North Korea, and the US nuclear war planning system is no longer built around an SIOP rather adaptive planning founded on tailored deterrence concepts and rapid retargeting capabilities. North Korea is calling for something akin to a nuclear weapons free zone in and around the Korean peninsula which challenge US extended deterrence and its nuclear posture with reference to Russia and China as well.

How committed is Pyongyang to this conception of denuclearisation or how far along the road toward it might diplomacy be permitted to travel? The best way to determine this is empirically, by testing North Korean intentions through constructive engagement, rather than via a priori pronouncements.

Yeongjeo-dong Missile Base

Controversy regarding North Korea’s denuclearisation intentions was recently, in part, sparked by the revealing of satellite imagery showing that North Korea continues to actively operate, post Singapore, the Yeongjeo-dong facility long considered to be a missile operating base for long range missiles. In addition, the satellite imagery appears to show the building, post Singapore, of a new adjoining missile operating base not far from Yeongjeo-dong and that too appears capable of housing long range missiles especially the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 both capable of striking the United States.

The satellite images were obtained, analysed and interpreted by researchers at the Centre of Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies (MIIS). Some have, quite strongly, questioned that analysis and interpretation even so far as doubting that the new adjoining facility is a long range missile operating base. I certainly do not share that criticism. The careful and detailed work on Yeongjeo-dong appears to me empirically accurate and valuable in and of itself. It also serves as a testimony to the skill and knowledge of the researchers involved. It should be added that South Korean sources have all but confirmed the empirical findings.

However, there are aspects to the matter of Yeongjeo-dong that I consider problematical. We first came to know of it via an exclusive CNN report available here. It appears that the CNS researchers collaborated with CNN to make as big a public impact as possible. Going to the media first in an exclusive or via a press conference has increasingly become a feature of academic inquiry one of the earlier and more notorious examples being the Pons and Fleischmann cold fusion saga. One of the reasons for this, especially in the neoliberal era, is that the sensational release of research through the media promotes the private interests of research institutes and universities increasingly locked in market driven competition.

The researchers themselves, and others, have made the case that the manner by which the information on Yeongjeo-dong was released is in the public interest. That is because it undermines President Trump’s rhetoric which has it that his administration has made great progress toward the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Such rhetoric is not compatible with long term strategic stability on the Korean peninsula, it is, quite correctly, held. But take a careful look at the CNN report.

Firstly, one of the CNS researchers, Jeffrey Lewis, is quoted as saying

“Construction on the previously unidentified site has continued even after the Singapore Summit” between Kim and President Donald Trump in June, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, one of the analysts that identified the site, told CNN. “Whatever Kim says about his desire for denuclearization, North Korea continues to produce and deploy nuclear armed missiles.”

The CNN report also states,

While Kim is not violating any agreement with the US or South Korea by continuing to produce and deploy existing types of missiles, the identification of yet another active North Korean missile base comes at a time when some members of the Trump administration are declaring that Pyongyang has failed to uphold its end of the bargain thus far

The impression left is that if perfidy is to be attributed post Singapore it is to be attributed to Pyongyang, further underscored by Yeongjeo-dong. But consider. Previously I had, through reason, argued that a key problem post Singapore was that it appeared Washington had deceived Pyongyang. That is, in return for the dismantlement of the facility for static hot testing of large liquid propelled engines at the Sohae space launch complex, the one discrete and concrete pledge known to be made by Kim Jong-un at Singapore, Washington would agree to a joint declaration of the end of the Korean War. Because Washington didn’t make good on its end of the bargain diplomacy began to stall. Subsequently Alex Ward at Vox had a good report available here, based on multiple official sources, that such a bargain was indeed reached at Singapore. North Korea began to dismantle the Sohae static hot testing facility, confirmed by satellite imagery, but as the US did not follow through on its commitment it stopped that process.

You will find no reference to this at all in the CNN report or other subsequent media reports. It is out of history. Now consider the opening line of the Yeongjeo-dong paper published by the researchers, here, after the CNN report which opens with a very specific claim

Why are experts so skeptical of North Korea’s offer to dismantle the test stand it uses to test new rocket engines? One reason is that North Korea is currently producing and deploying nuclear-armed missiles

It doesn’t take much to see how that statement is at odds with what appears to be the diplomatic history.

More importantly, the sensational release of the satellite imagery occurs in a definite political context and to judge whether its manner of release serves the public good that political context needs to be taken into consideration. As noted previously there is a definite current of liberal and neoconservative opinion that would rather the high level diplomacy between North Korea and the United States end. The sensational release has had the predictable effect of adding grist to the mill for that current of opinion, and so I would argue that the manner of its dissemination has not served the public good. Joshua Pollack, a CNS researcher, has a defence of the CNS position here that makes some good points. Without question, the Yeongjeo-dong controversy does not compare to the Sakkanmol controversy, which was altogether worse, and CNS cannot be compared to the Institute for Science and International Security which is horrid. But that doesn’t mean that the sensationalistic release of information is beyond criticism. What Pollack ignores in his defence is the wider political context in which North Korea is discussed and the way that sensational releases of information predictably might reinforce that context absent a concerted interpretation of their import.

Should the researchers have first published a report, issued a press release offering a fuller interpretation of the empirical findings, and made themselves available for interviews, comments and so on then greater ownership over both the empirical evidence and its proper interpretation would have been garnered.

Following the Yeongjeo-dong controversy one of the researchers, Jeffrey Lewis, has published a paper on the post Singapore history of the nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington at the Nuclear Threat Initiative here. It comes accompanied with a colouring book. When printing that out I suggest appending a blank page and colouring it in black to symbolise how the probable Sohae arrangement reached at Singapore has been redacted from history. You will have to do this because it does not appear in the paper, unsurprisingly given the opening statement of the Yeongjeo-dong paper cited above.

Upon publishing the colouring book Lewis has published an important paper on what he considers to be the best alternative to the current approach at Global Asia here. That is a welcome development as it goes against the current of liberal and neoconservative opinion on alternatives to the Trump approach, but its political impact is nowhere near as great as the sensational CNN report. Much that is written in the Global Asia paper is spot on, in my opinion, and I seek leave to discuss that alternative in more detail later as this post has gotten a bit too long.

Essentially, Lewis argues that North Korea is offering a type of neoopacity whereby Pyongyang curtails the size and scope of its nuclear arsenal consistent with minimum-finite-existential deterrence and lowers the salience that it places upon deterrence in its international relations, and in turn we accept this, dropping disarmament, in favour of settling for the deterrence of North Korea with our own nuclear weapons as the best means of achieving nuclear security. Although Lewis does not discuss South Korea here that would mean accepting North Korea’s nuclear status whilst also providing positive, including economic, support for North-South rapprochement. That surely makes sense. The underlying source of nuclear danger lies in the continuance of the Korean War and ending the Korean War whilst accepting a capped North Korean deterrent would make for greater strategic stability than the situation we have now and is certainly better than what we had in 2017. This is the rational approach given where matters stand currently.

But given the political culture and context on this issue in the United States the adoption of this position will require hard work, and that work needs to be mindful of the political context and political culture in which North Korea has and continues to be discussed. Neoopacity requires changing that context and that culture. To give you an example of that culture and context below is the screenshot of a Google search of “Jericho III missile New York Times.” The Jericho III is reputed to be Israel’s long range nuclear capable ballistic missile, also reputedly last tested two months prior to North Korea’s first Hwasong-14 ICBM test and immediately after its first Hwasong-12 test in May 2017.