Christmas has come and gone, and alas no Christmas gift from North Korea. That despite a veritable orgy of press coverage in the month of December devoted to its prospect. What got little attention, by contrast, was something far more important. That’s developments on the sanctions front, but these were ignored, and are being actively erased from history, because they run counter to the dominant narrative assiduously being built by our own propaganda systems.
We begin by looking at these developments, and we’ll come to the Christmas gift by way of conclusion. These aren’t the only things that happened in December, we even saw the return of John Bolton, but we’ll focus on the big ticket items excluding the engine tests at Sohae having examined those previously. Let’s take each in turn.
Sanctions and the Diplomatic Record
A report today in The Los Angeles Times, which evidently functions not just as a news report but as a report reflecting, and desiring the establishing, of received history, states that;
Stephen Biegun, the chief U.S. negotiator, during a visit to South Korea this month urged North Korea to “seize this moment,” calling it a “window of opportunity.” “We are here and you know how to reach us,” he said — a plea that fell on deaf ears
Further, regarding the diplomatic record in 2018 and especially following the recent collapse of the working level talks in Sweden (agreed to at the Panmunjom meeting between Kim and Trump), we have;
Each time, when U.S. negotiators tried to follow up to talk specifics, they said they were rebuffed
This is a fairly standard rendition of the diplomatic record. I have seen comments such as these being made time and again in December, with an increased tempo as Christmas approached and, moreover, as Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline fast approaches. What’s noteworthy here is that a cursory glance at the diplomatic record, even when just restricting ourselves to the month of December, shows it to be patently false. In a highly significant, because most revealing, but barely reported, move Russia and China presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council on December 16 calling for partial sanctions relief for North Korea, that is from sanctions targeting the North Korean civil economy.
According to a Reuters report, Reuters is of course a newswire, Russia and China specifically proposed;
The U.N. Security Council lift a ban on North Korea exporting statues, seafood and textiles, according to a draft resolution seen by Reuters, in a move Russia said is aimed at encouraging talks between Washington and Pyongyang
The draft also called for a ban to be lifted on North Koreans working abroad and the termination of a 2017 requirement for all such workers to be repatriated by next week. The draft would also exempt inter-Korean rail and road cooperation projects from U.N. sanctions
The United States effectively blocked this, claiming North Korea is not willing to take concrete steps toward the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as agreed to at Singapore. We know that’s false. North Korea’s position has been consistent since the September 2018 Pyongyang Summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in. Partial sanctions relief for dismantling the nuclear weapons related facilities at Yongbyon. After the Hanoi Summit earlier this year we knew which UN sanctions North Korea sought to be suspended, namely those put in place in 2016 and thereafter. These roughly accord with the sanctions Russia and China proposed be suspended in the December 16 draft.
This is very important, because essentially it means Russia and China put before the UN Security Council this month, as Kim’s deadline loomed, the deal proposed by North Korea at the Hanoi Summit and the United States, once again, rejected it outright. The media, basically, have ignored this highly significant and most revealing development, choosing instead to focus on phantom Christmas gifts and repeating, with an increased crescendo, tales of North Korean perfidy. To be sure US officials, especially Stephen Biegun and the US Representative to the UN Security Council, Kelly Craft, have made statements about being open to dialogue, about being open to a step-by-step reciprocal process of diplomacy, but Washington’s deeds at the UN Security Council in December put the lie to those words. That didn’t stop the media from quoting US officials uncritically as they condemned North Korea for its intransigence. The situation was neatly summed up, again written uncritically, in this beauty of a sentence, from Reuters, that everybody following North Korea should file away for future reference;
The United States has said it is opposed to any sanctions relief at the moment, but has also said it is willing to be flexible in discussions.
It takes a PhD in political science and a comfy sinecure at a foreign policy think tank not to notice the obvious contradiction, one readily discernible to any literate twelve year old.
But the situation is worse still, more revealing still. According to an NK News report this week;
President Donald Trump is set to sign a new wave of North Korea sanctions into law on Friday night in Washington..
The sanctions target Pyongyang’s coal, iron, textile, and seafood industries, along with certain banks that do business with the DPRK. They also aim to help governments around the world enforce existing UN sanctions, and seek to put pressure on countries that don’t do enough to enforce them
Notice the reference to seafood and textiles, precisely the sanctions mentioned in the draft UN resolution drawn up by Russia and China. These, of course, are part of the sanctions North Korea asked to be waived in exchange for Yongbyon at Hanoi. Consider also the secondary sanctions. Further, this week the demand that all North Korean workers working abroad be repatriated back to North Korea came into effect. Washington has not just blocked sanctions relief in December, it has acted to put the squeeze on further. Yet the references to this in the media have been miniscule, certainly as compared to the Christmas gift.
There isn’t any doubt that December saw an acceleration in the propaganda campaign being waged by our propaganda system against North Korea. That propaganda is aimed at blaming Pyongyang for the impasse in denuclearisation diplomacy, yet the record, even when just limited to the month of December, suggests a very different picture. Doubtless this propaganda campaign is considered by analysts in North Korea to be reflective of no change in what they regard to be Washington’s hostile policy, that is to say a policy of regime change through graduated pressure using concerns about nuclear proliferation as a pretext. I suspect an important reason behind this propaganda campaign is a bit more prosaic. The natural human tendency is to support the underdog, not the overbearing bully, and the propaganda system has to work hard to make out the global colossus as victim in this case.
Another important development, directly related to this, was the making of the following statement by China’s Minister for Foreign Affairs;
“China calls on US to take concrete steps asap to deliver what has been agreed in Singapore. We encourage DPRK & US to work out a feasible roadmap for establishing a permanent peace regime & realizing complete denuclearization on the Peninsula”
China sees Washington as the stumbling block preventing diplomatic progress, which may very well colour its attitudes and actions in 2020.
Notice that the sanctions bill passed by Congress was named after Otto Warmbier. According to Andrew Barr, the key congressional sponsor of the bill (cited in the NK News report linked above),
Warmbier is on the minds of many members of Congress whenever North Korea comes up.
“The memory of Otto Warmbier is what motivates us in Congress to be very, very forceful in our views with respect to the Kim regime,” he said.
That, of course, isn’t true but let us take it literally for a minute. When taken literally that means Congress is prepared to risk a nuclear war, which would kill millions and end Korean civilisation, on account of one dead American. I challenge you to find any parallel in all of human history.
The Third Emergency Meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea
The Central Military Commission of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held it its third emergency meeting in December. The meeting was an enlarged meeting, of some 80 participants (they’re not usually this large as the CMC is an exclusive club like its equivalent in China). The meeting was widely interpreted as preparation for the Fifth Plenum of the Seventh Central Committee, which has been convened by the Presidium of the Politburo for late December. This is where we see their propaganda system in overdrive. As this Plenum approaches, one called in haste (it appears) and for late December (both unprecedented), the North Korean propaganda system has also gone into high gear. We saw Kim himself again ascend Mount Paektu, accompanied by the senior commanders of the Korean Peoples’ Army, and he has been followed by a number of Party and youth delegations all prominently featured in North Korean media. There have been a number of reports in the North Korean press extolling the people, especially the young, to bear any burden and to pay any price for the revolution and socialist construction. This, I would argue, is all preparing North Koreans for the Fifth Plenum, and the unveiling of the policy already formulated which the Plenum will basically rubber stamp. The Plenum appears to be the apogee of this propaganda campaign, and thus far the campaign has had a pronounced martial tendency to it. One report had a very interesting line. It called for North Koreans to tighten their belts in sacrifice. Now one might remember that Kim Jong Un, early into his rule, promised his people that they would never have to tighten their belts again. That puts the campaign waged by the North Korean propaganda system into context, for the leadership appears to be preparing North Koreans for a hard and bumpy ride in 2020 and is calling for unity and discipline as it does so.
Not much different to what our propaganda system is doing by the way, even though we live in relatively open societies and yet laugh ourselves silly when observing their propaganda at work.
As someone born in, nominally, socialist Yugoslavia I paint a picture through analogy. In Tito’s Yugoslavia there was a sacred place not unlike Mount Paektu. That was Tito’s “Pecina” or cave, his Drvar headquarters during the people’s liberation war against the fascist occupier. What’s happening in North Korea is something like this. It’s the 1970s and Tito is concerned, given the Brezhnev Doctrine and following Dubcek in Prague, that Yugoslavia is next in line. He knows this threat requires the people to be mobilised and to be prepared for sacrifice and privation. The Partisan generation has aged, but he recalls their spirit and reminds the new generation of their sacrifice by paying a highly symbolic visit to the Pecina at Drvar. This would have been no different to the role Mount Paektu is playing in North Korea’s current propaganda campaign. Rather than laughing we should seek understanding.
The Third Emergency meeting did make concrete decisions, according to the KCNA report detailing its deliberations, and for further particulars I draw the reader to the report. The meeting was more than a propaganda exercise alone.
March 16 Automotive Factory Satellite Images Indicate an Enhancement to North Korean Missile Production Capabilities.
We have also seen some interesting reports, also just very recently, of what appears to be an enhancement of North Korea’s missile production facilities. In this case we are referring to North Korea’s ability to produce Transport Erector Launchers for its missiles, most especially its longer range missiles including ICBMs. This angle reminds us of the stakes occasioned by the current diplomatic impasse, and why accepting North Korea’s Hanoi offer would be a reasonable thing to do.
In February 2018 Pyongyang marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army with a, subdued, military parade. The main talking point of that parade was the semi-trailer trucks used to parade the Hwasong-14 ICBM. This suggested that North Korea had an important limitation in its long range missile programme, namely the production of large TELs for its ICBMs. According to a report in Japanese media;
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un around February last year ordered the mass production of vehicles used for transporting and launching missiles including intercontinental ballistic missiles, Kyodo News has learned.
The report cites a figure of 70 TELs having been manufactured in total following an enhancement of the North’s production capabilities. Furthermore;
U.S. intelligence officials who have acquired the same intelligence appear to be working to find out how many of the 70 TELs are intended for carrying ICBMs and how far their assembly has progressed.
We cannot be certain of the veracity of this report, but it does tally with analysis of satellite images, obtained by Planet Labs, of the March 16 Automotive Factory, which, in part, manufactures TELs. The analysis was conducted by researchers at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and reported extensively by NBC News. The really TELling (lame I know) part of that analysis had to do with the appearance of a temporary structure at the factory that we know is related to Pyongyang’s missile programme;
Commercial satellite images from Planet Labs show a temporary structure at the site to accommodate the raising of a launcher arm, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“We believe North Korea erects this structure when the facility is involved in producing or modifying ICBM launchers,” Lewis concluded in a written analysis, using the acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The importance of this can be gleaned from an August 2017 article on the structure by the lead researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, Jeffrey Lewis, for the Daily Beast;
We’ve seen a building like that once before—at another factory for building missile launchers. It is a covered area that allows North Korean workers to attach the arm that lifts the missile and raise it up. These vehicles, called transporter-erector-launchers, do two important things: They transport the missile horizontally and then use a big arm to erect it vertically. If you build one of these vehicles inside, you need a tall ceiling to make sure the arm works.
That’s the structure that has recently reappeared at the March 16 Automotive Factory. But there’s more involved here than the reappearance of this structure. Crucially, as per the NBC Report;
Kim appears to have visited part of the facility a third time in June 2019, Lewis says, and commercial imagery taken by Planet Labs shows that North Korea began expanding the site shortly after that visit. Among the additions was a new building that is connected to the one where Kim witnessed preparations for the Hwasong-15 launch in 2017.
That new building means North Korea has, it appears, expanded the production capabilities of the plant, which further means Pyongyang has augmented its capacity to produce TELs thus addressing a limitation in its nuclear weapons programme brought to relief in the February 2018 parade.
This, it would appear, applies across the board. As Lewis is quoted by NBC;
“There is activity at a number of locations indicating that North Korea is laying the groundwork for an expansion of their ICBM program — more systems, more buildings, more capabilities.”
That is surely correct.
Now following the second static hot test of a liquid propelled engine at Sohae this month the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army announced a policy of strategic parity. More systems, more buildings, more capabilities, is certainly consistent with a policy of strategic parity. But what would such a strategy entail? Here we are less certain, but I’ve argued that the possibility North Korea is developing a new ICBM for delivering a megatonne class, high yield, thermonuclear weapon for delivery to the United States cannot be excluded and should not be excluded a priori.
North Korea is credited with having a military strategy, with its strategic rocket forces playing an important role, designed to prevent the United States from massing its forces, as reinforcement from regional and homeland bases, in theatre in the event of a second Korean war. What strategic parity might entail is a strategy of assured destruction. North Korea may be seeking a capability to acquire what in cold war parlance was termed mutually assured destruction or MAD, regarded as the capability to strike a sufficient number of urban-industrial targets consistent with existential risk. This leads to the natural question for planners in Pyongyang, Alain Einthoven’s question, namely “how much is enough?”
Remember that Moscow and Washington’s arsenals during the cold war, as now, represented overkill i.e. they went well beyond the requirements of assured destruction. During the cold war assured destruction, though presented in scientific and mathematical terms, was an ideological justification for the arms programmes of the 1960s. It was defined as possessing the capability to destroy 50% of the urban-industrial basis of a society and against the United States, at the time, it was calculated that possession of 220-250 one megatonne nuclear warheads was sufficient. For North Korea manufacturing 220-250 one megatonne warheads would require a significant expansion in its nuclear programme and its underlying industrial basis. An important current limitation, so far as we know, is North Korea’s plutonium production facilities. However, 70 TELs represents no mean feat even if all of those are not ICBM related.
US presidents, not just Donald Trump, have a record of threatening North Korea with obliteration. Those threats have been backed up by a very real capability. Hitherto the assumption has been that North Korea can hit the US hard but not so hard that US society cannot readily recover and endure. Hence Trump’s well known refrain about his button being bigger than Kim’s. History may well record that Trump’s rhetoric regarding big buttons and fire and fury formed the catalyst for Kim’s pursuing strategic parity through assured destruction.
The March 16 Factory evidence, like evidence similar to it, can be parsed in two ways. One way is the way I would argue it should be parsed. The other way is in how it has been parsed. The first is that, by underscoring the stakes involved, which consist in a dangerous combination of continued expansion of Pyongyang’s capabilities and strategic instability, the empirical evidence suggests that the rational course of action now is to accept Kim’s Hanoi offer, so placing limits on his nuclear programme while simultaneously fashioning strategic stability. The second way, the way it has been parsed, is that what we see emerging in North Korea stands as good evidence supporting the rejection of diplomacy, at best, and a renewed escalation of “maximum pressure,” at worst.
Is North Korea seeking strategic parity through assured destruction? Is North Korea up to building such a capability? It would be good and reasonable for us to act through meaningful diplomacy such that we don’t come to see affirmative answers to such questions.
Back to the Christmas Gift
Which brings us back to the Christmas gift. I have argued here, but also on social media, that the most important part of the KCNA report of the remarks made by Ri Thae Song, the North’s Vice Foreign Minister in Charge of U.S. Affairs, where the Christmas gift statement was made, was in fact Ri’s saying, given the failure of the Singapore process, that North Korea would be transparent and open “from now on.” That effectively brings the bomb out of the basement, where it has been since early 2018. Everything we’ve seen since tallies with that statement, little with the Christmas gift. Yet the media and commentators have engaged in an extended orgy regarding the Christmas gift.
What we see here is a case example of how North Korea is reported by the mainstream media. Pyongyang’s missile tests are seen as “provocations” as a type of “signalling” meant to communicate to Washington some message or to place domestic political pressure upon Donald Trump. A Christmas gift ICBM test was to be the biggest signal of them all. Those who spent all of December sprouting “Christmas gift” ad nauseum, especially on Twitter, now are like; “what the Christmas gift really meant was.” Monday night quarterbacks. There’s nothing for North Korea to signal. It’s message since the Pyongyang Summit has been clear enough.
Barring some last minute intervention, North Korea will engage, out in the open as it were, in further research and development supportive of its strategic policy and defence priorities. These will be constrained by scientific, engineering, and industrial considerations and its testing programme, both missile and nuclear, will be driven by technical concerns with the timing of its tests, at times, being reflective of politics and the need to demonstrate resolve. But in substance the tests will have a technical core to them. It’s our obsession with North Korea’s testing programme that will turn those tests into crises not their hankering for provocation. The North’s UN representative recently made an interesting statement, after Pyongyang was referred to the Security Council following its last test of the KN-25 tactical guided missile system. He said that the Western powers would refer to North Korea to the UN even should it test a machine gun. That’s quite similar to Osama bin Laden, during the height of the “war on terror,” saying all he had to do to set a US expeditionary force to the Middle East was wave a white rag with “al Qaeda” written on it. The comment, then and now, demonstrates the domestic political climate of the times. Something, certainly then and perhaps now, to be exploited. We have here the makings of a self fulfilling prophecy.
That’s not to say that there weren’t “provocations” by way of missile testing in December. This month the US flight tested a prototype intermediate range missile of the type banned by the INF Treaty, which it withdrew from unilaterally citing an alleged material breach of the Treaty by Russia. The missile booster consisted of a Castor 4 solid rocket motor, used in space launch vehicles. The Castor 4 motor was doubtless chosen on account of the speed with which it could be used to configure, and flight test an IRBM. But why speed, exactly? The test was designed to establish “facts on the ground,” as it were, making a future return to the INF Treaty difficult despite congressional, and international, attempts to prevent an irreversible rapture from the Treaty. That’s, if you will, provocation via missile test. Even, you might say, a type of “signalling” in this case a missile test signalling to all and sundry that the INF Treaty is dead and buried. No security or strategic consideration mandated taking out of the stockpile a Castor 4 solid rocket motor for so hasty an IRBM flight test.
One interesting news item, just before Christmas, was the dispatching by the United States of four “spy planes,” with a suite of sensors to gain detailed and comprehensive data on a North Korean ICBM flight test. These were an RC-135W Rivet Joint, E-8C, RQ-4 Global Hawk and RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft. These were reported as flying “over” North Korea, an error, but one that invites some questions. How close did they get? How close is too close for North Korea? Will the US deploy these aircraft in the future event of indications of an ICBM test? Will North Korea seek to contest this?
In these questions can be found the possibility of a crisis over North Korea’s missile testing to escalate sharply. Any such escalation, to no small degree, would be a function of our obsession with “provocations” and “signalling.” That obsession stems from considerations of power. Should the perception be that some puny state is signalling resolve and toughness to the global hegemon then the global hegemon has to respond in a way reminding all who is boss. The obsession is in reality a form of self obsession, an obsession with our own power and how our power is perceived by others.