North Korea’s New Rocket Engine for Space Programme? Why a Nuclear Freeze and Resumption of Diplomacy Are Good Ideas.

John Schilling at 38North has good analysis of North Korea’s latest static rocket engine test, of a new high thrust engine, where he suggests that the test should be seen in the context of the North’s space, rather than missile, programme.

The North Koreans themselves stated this, and I had also made an argument for supposing that the engine test is best viewed with respect to a space launch vehicle rather than a long range ballistic missile.

Schilling observes,

Whatever the underlying heritage of this engine, it appears that the combination of the core engine and verniers is too large to fit in any of North Korea’s known ICBM prototypes, or in any missile that could be carried on any of its mobile launchers… Of the North Korean rocket and missile projects that we are currently aware of, the best fit for this engine would be as the second stage of the new satellite launch vehicle provisionally known as the “Unha-9.”

That makes sense. North Korea, we know, wants to place a satellite into higher earth orbits than hitherto, ie low earth sun synchronous. Ultimately the North Koreans have expressed the desire to place a satellite into geosynchronous orbit (42, 164km).

The second stage of the Unha space launch vehicle consists of a single Scud-B engine, but if configured, for instance, with the R-27 engine (derived from the SS-N-6 Soviet SLBM and used for the Musudan MRBM), the Unha SLV could deliver a 1000kg satellite into a 10,000 km orbit.

Media reports continue to be dominated by the supposition that North Korea has tested an engine for the second stage of an ICBM. Even when paraphrasing the North Korean’s themselves words are twisted to give this impression.

Consider this from The New York Times

On Sunday, North Korea claimed that it had conducted a successful ground jet test of a newly developed high-thrust missile engine, which Mr. Kim called “a great event of historic significance”

But that is not what North Korea said. It stated that it tested a rocket engine, not a missile engine. The attribution “missile” is the Times’, not the North’s. The claim “missile” is a claim made by The New York Times, not North Korea.

Moreover, nuclear nonproliferation analysts have been widely quoted using the expression “missile” or “ICBM” in the context of the engine test. I understand that nonproliferation is their day job, but not everything that North Korea does is missile related and the proclivity of non-proliferation analysts to interpret everything in the context of an ICBM programme is poor form.

That said, North Korea hot on the heels of the static rocket engine test did launch a missile at Wonsan, on the east coast, which exploded seconds after launch.

That suggests the launch was of a Musudan MRBM, given the string of similar Musudan failures, but we cannot be sure. The Musudan engine uses high energy liquid propellants.

Just as important, if not more important, regarding North Korea is what is happening in Washington.

We know the Trump administration is conducting a review of North Korea policy, and that the administration has appeared to rule out a continuation of the Obama era “strategic patience” strategy.

What this means exactly is subject to varied analysis, but recent comments by the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have been suggestive. Tillerson rejected a Chinese proposal for North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programme in exchange for the discontinuation of the current round of US-South Korea military exercises, but in doing so did not necessarily rule out the resumption of a diplomatic approach in principle.

Tillerson has been reported as suggesting such an in principle ruling out of talks with North Korea, but there is some wiggle room in Tillerson’s remarks given that he stated it would be “premature” to initiate bilateral or multilateral diplomacy now.

The argument made by Tillerson in rejection of a freeze is that it would leave current North Korean capabilities in place. The current position, much like Obama’s, is to rule out diplomatic overtures until North Korea begins a denuclearisation process.

Placing such preconditions, that is demanding that the subject of diplomacy occurs before diplomacy proceeds, means that one is not serious about negotiations. It is a way of actively preventing diplomacy, for example preconditions placed on Iran regarding the halting of uranium enrichment was a means to prevent meaningful diplomacy during the Bush era. This doesn’t prevent Trump, and much of the media, rounding on China regarding North Korea but here Beijing was offering a diplomatic strategy to halt the escalatory slide.

Rejected by Washington, yet the world is led to believe that it is Beijing that is acting nefariously.

A freeze is a good idea. North Korea’s programme is advancing but North Korea still has a means to go before it can present a viable strategic deterrent with respect to the US homeland. Pyongyang thus far, after many years of work and five nuclear tests and that in laboratory conditions, has achieved a nominal nuclear yield for a first generation nuclear device (15-20KT). It needs to develop a re-entry vehicle able to withstand the acceleration, vibration, and deceleration for an ICBM RV. It needs to miniaturise its nuclear device for delivery by ballistic missile, which it may well have done but this is not known to high certainty. North Korea has yet to successfully flight test an ICBM.

A freeze at current levels, thereby, is worth doing. In the absence of a freeze North Korea’s programme will continue to advance. North Korea appears to be building deeper test shafts at its Mount Mantap nuclear test site near Punggye-ri to accommodate higher yield nuclear tests, up to 282 Kilotons.

Another assumption underpinning a rejection of diplomatic approaches is the supposition that the historical record demonstrates that North Korea rejects diplomatic initiatives because it is committed to its strategic programmes come hell or high water.

But this obscures the US scuttling of denuclearisation talks, by both the Bush and Obama administrations. This is out of history, but if we had a responsible press informing the public of the facts as we deliberate upon appropriate courses of action we would have this information at our ready disposal.

Developing a nuclear deterrent is a rational thing for North Korea to do given its circumstances. Rejecting diplomatic initiatives is not a rational thing for Washington to do assuming nuclear nonproliferation is the key policy objective.

US policy is rational to the extent that we drop the assumption that nuclear nonproliferation is the key policy priority. Those concerned about nonproliferation might do well by turning some of their analytical attentions closer to home.