The countdown to 2020 is on in earnest and the countdown might yet prove to be that of of a corny 1980s one hit wonder
The name of the band also has an uncertain future.
I’d like to focus on three things here. First, catching up with North Korea’s last KN-25 MLRS test, recent developments in the politics of denuclearisation, and what might be in store for 2020.
KN-25 Super Large Calibre MLRS Test
The month was brought in by an October 31 test firing of the KN-25 MLRS system, what the North Koreans in their statements have called a super large calibre MLRS. Two rockets of the system were tested from the Sunchon airbase in South Pyongan Province to a 370km range and 90km apogee. There has been some discussion that a third was unsuccessfully launched on account of a third canister, apparently, having flipped its lid however no report on telemetry that I’ve seen confirms this.
Anyway, the test was widely reported in the media as being an instance of North Korean “signalling.” You can see however from the relevant KCNA statement that the test was operational and developmental in nature; “The Academy of Defence Science organized the test-fire to verify the security of launchers’ continuous fire system.” Further, “The perfection of the continuous fire system was verified through the test-fire to totally destroy with super-power the group target of the enemy and designated target area by surprise strike.” In earlier tests of the system it was emphasised that confirmation of the systems technical parameters under operational conditions was further required. That is what the October 31 KN-25 test was about.
When the KN-25 was first tested in August an interesting part of the KCNA statement got lost in translation, as it were. Probably because of the media’s mania for “signalling.” The KN-25, according to Kim Jong Un, was rapidly designed and developed by a group of young scientists and engineers, who will continue to improve the defence science base moreover.
“He gave high appreciation, saying that it is, indeed, a great weapon, our young national defence scientists are so clever as to conceive out of their own heads and design and complete the weapon system at one go-off…
…What made him happy today is that a contingent of young and promising talents who will shoulder upon the rapid development of the Juche-oriented defence industry grow in the course of the development of the new weapon…
…the Juche-oriented defence industry will steadily be developed by the talented national defence scientists and technicians faithful to the Party.”
We shall return to this.
North Korea has progressively developed two new MLRS systems of increasing calibre than the KN-09 MLRS (which not long ago we considered new, but now is so much old hat). That’s very interesting. The KN-25 has an estimated calibre of 0.6m (600mm or 60cm). North Korea’s boosted fission weapon, a model (or perhaps not) of which Kim Jong Un showed off below, is estimated to have a width of about 60cm.
That device was tested to an approximately 35KT yield. The fissions are boosted through a high neutron flux provided by fusion reactions involving deuterium and tritium gas. This means the device might be a “dial-a-yield” device whose yield can be manipulated by adjusting the amount of deuterium and tritium gas. Consider the controversial W76-2 warhead programme of the Trump administration. The goal here is to field a low yield tactical version of the W-76 warhead (100KT yield), with a yield of about 6KT. That’s, most likely, achieved by replacing the W76 secondary with an inert secondary for the W76-2 of the same dimensions and mass and by adjusting the amount of deuterium and tritium gas in the primary. North Korea’s boosted fission weapon doesn’t have a secondary, of course, but it could be made to have a lower yield by adjusting or removing the deuterium and tritium gas much like the reported case of the W76-2.
According to a pretty full on denunciation of the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, the KN-25 is not a “missile,” according to the North Koreans, however the guided nature of the rocket does render it a missile (see the fins on the business end of the KN-25), rather than a free rocket over ground, and so US intelligence and most analysts are surely correct in labelling it as such. The KN-25 does now appear in the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative DPRK missile test database. For it to appear in that database it must meet two criteria. That is, “(1) the missile tested meets the minimum threshold necessary to be entered and (2) that the information entered best reflects the events that actually occurred.” The minimum threshold is that any missile entered must have at least a 500kg payload and a 300km range. The KN-25 has a 370km range, and a 500kg payload with a 0.6m calibre puts the KN-25 into the nuclear ball park.
As my readers would know I have been writing about this angle from the get go, and I think the last test of the KN-25 is supportive of this. Consider again the KCNA statement cited from above. “The perfection of the continuous fire system was verified through the test-fire to totally destroy with super-power the group target of the enemy and designated target area by surprise strike.” Consider “with super-power” and “group target of the enemy.” I suggest that the Korean People’s Army has an especial interest in preventing the pincers of OPLAN 5015, the US-ROK operational plan for a second Korean war, from enveloping Pyongyang. The KPA would want to prevent combined arms operational groups from manoeuvring from the south and from doing the same from the east by preventing and or contesting a major landing at Wonsan.
Recent Developments in the Politics of Denuclearisation
Here the major events are well known, however the interpretation of them isn’t as flashy as it could be. What I think is happening is that we’re seeing the start of a blame game; who’s responsible for the breakdown in the denuclearisation talks and North-South détente? The recent developments have been widely interpreted as North Korea upping the ante on its Hanoi position as Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline looms. This is surely a mistaken interpretation. North Korea’s position since the Pyongyang summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in has been invariant; targeted sanctions relief focusing on the civilian economy for dismantlement of Yongbyon. This what Pyongyang refers to as its “method of calculation.” The US position has also been invariant; sanctions relief comes after dismantlement of the North’s nuclear programme.
Those analysts, including much of the mainstream media, who say that North Korea has changed its policy on the Pyongyang Declaration point to a statement on November 18 made by Kim Yong Chol, chairman of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee. Here Kim Yong Chol says that Washington must first end its hostile policy, including but not limited to sanctions relief, and only then would Pyongyang consider denuclearisation. However on November 14 Kim Myong Gil, an ambassador of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs involved in the denuclearisation diplomacy, stated; “If the negotiated solution of issues is possible, we are ready to meet with the U.S. at any place and any time.” Further, “now that we have already informed the U.S. side of our requirements and priority matters, the ball is in the U.S. court.” Thereupon those requirements are all but spelled out, namely sanctions relief targeting the civilian economy precisely as it has been since the Pyongyang Summit.
To attribute a major policy change by North Korea to a press statement by the head of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee only demonstrates that one doesn’t know how North Korea rolls nor how politics works more broadly quite frankly. Sorry for sounding harsh but this is truly amateur hour stuff. To be sure Pyongyang has rejected an overture from Stephen Biegun for a resumption of working level talks in December, through a third party it might be added, and an offer to suspend US-ROK air exercises, and the big one another twitter call by Trump to Kim for a meet up, but it’s clear this is couched within the ambit of the Pyongyang Declaration. According to North Korea the Trump administration is mainly pursuing summitry as a form of big bang public relations for domestic political purposes, and it is no longer interested in being a party to this. That’s been one part of the standard liberal critique of Trump’s dalliance with Kim, and just when Pyongyang repeats the charge the liberal media accuse North Korea of upping the ante.
There’s a general rule to be adopted when it comes to liberal critiques of Trump. What’s interesting is not where they critique the Trump administration, it’s where they don’t that’s revealing. This is one example, the coup in Bolivia is another.
This is an important issue. The media are constructing an historical narrative that blames North Korea for the collapse in the denuclearisation talks. That narrative will justify continued rejection of the Hanoi offer but more importantly whatever hawkish responses Washington might make to a resumption of North Korean long range missile and nuclear weapons testing or whatever else Kim Jong Un might have in stall to break the straitjacket weighing down the North Korean economy. That’s dangerous, as it will encourage whatever escalatory process is further set in train in 2020. There’s more at stake here than a mere question of historical narrative. Getting the narrative wrong encourages harsh measures that risk a nuclear conflict. Getting the narrative right puts further political pressure on the Trump administration, or better still a new more sane administration (should we make it to this time next year) to pick up on the Hanoi offer. But this pressure is nonexistent and the constructed historical narrative has a lot to do with that.
What could be North Korea’s agenda for 2020? This we don’t know. We do know Kim Jong Un stated in his 2019 new year address North Korea would pursue a “new way” should the denuclearisation process collapse by the end of the year. One thing we’ve seen North Korean officials point to is a resumption of long range missile testing and nuclear weapons testing. The recent test of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM (but also the KN-23 SRBM) shows that North Korea’s solid propellant and solid motor programme has advanced. It is quite possible that North Korea will test a solid fuel propelled IRBM if not an ICBM in 2020. They may resume nuclear testing at Punggye-ri in 2020 (where they’ve closed but not collapsed test tunnels). Nuclear weapons testing is done for research and development purposes or weapons effects purposes. North Korea might want to test tactical nuclear weapons, say for the KN-25. The widespread assumption has always been that in any second Korean war North Korea will lose. However, the KPA would want to give Pyongyang every chance of winning and tactical nuclear weapons increases those chances. The ICBMs could pose a “window of vulnerability” deterring escalation after the KPA employs battlefield tactical nuclear weapons. That would be a type of intra-war deterrence. That’ll be interesting from a South Korean perspective as tactical nuclear weapons might lead Seoul to question extended deterrence. The US, however, does have the ability to strike North Korea with low yield nuclear weapons and it does think of nuclear operations, certainly in regional contingencies involving “WMD,” in terms of intra-war deterrence.
The 2020 agenda could be “go solid, go tactical.” Next year is an election year so that gives Pyongyang leverage as the Trump administration has touted the suspension of North Korean long range missile and nuclear testing as one of its achievements. This might even encourage Pyongyang to conduct an MET test of an ICBM or IRBM with a live nuclear package.
Rather than having a more strategically stable Korean peninsula heading toward a permanent peace we could end up with a strategic standoff where both sides have a type of intra-war deterrence concept and capabilities built around it. Add a provocation here and there and you’ve got a potentially explosive mix. This can be prevented, and rejecting the historical narrative feed to us is important here.
Zel’dovich, Kaldysh, Sakharov…
To return to the young scientists and engineers. One gets the impression that North Korea’s success with its nuclear and missile programme, and the defence science and military industrial basis to it, has played a role in North Korea’s recent policy emphasis on science and technology as a means to recapitalise the economy. I’ve seen KCNA statements emphasise the key role of education for economic development within this context. Could there be a new generation of scientists, engineers and technocrats brewing within North Korea? If so, we would be talking about people who are not only are intelligent and talented but who know how to think for themselves. In which direction will the young scientists and technicians that Kim Jong Un referred to after the first KN-25 test go? Will they go like Zel’dovich and follow their intellectual passions by concentrating on fundamental theoretical problems? Will they go like Kaldysh and become exulted academicians at the heart of the military-industrial base contributing to the development of society and high technology? Will they go like Sakharov and take their capacity for independent thinking into dissidence? Will they go like China’s red engineers to become a new class moving beyond Kim Il Sungism? Will they go like Teller and Strangelove like churn out more and more advanced weaponry for the state? We cannot tell.
But it is interesting that a recent Rodong Sinmun article was published with the title;Respect for Revolutionary Forerunners Is Noble Moral Obligation of Future Generations. This is the same title of a 1996 work by Kim Jong Il only in the original “future generations” was replaced by “revolutionaries.” Perhaps Kim Jong Un and the senior leadership are aware that the future generation of scientists and technicians might tend to think freely. In which case the greater threat to Kim Jong Un doesn’t come from OPLAN 5015, Trump, the W76-2, Kill Chain and such things. It may come from the very people who gave Kim Jong Un the weapons he so likes to beamingly be photographed by.