Not So Squeezy: What to Make of North Korea’s Latest Round of Missile Testing?

Much water has flowed down the Kuryong since our last greeting on North Korea. Developments have been dominated by continued North Korean short range missile testing, although the enshrining of changes to the constitution of the DPRK (announced at a previous meeting of the North’s legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly) giving Kim Jong-un more formal powers of state, the reappearance in the news of Pyongyang’s Romeo class modification ballistic missile submarine, and some stuff I’ve noticed on North Korea’s energy programme have also garnered interest. I’m thinking there may be a thread connecting these, which I’ll write about in a subsequent post.

Here we stick to the missile testing, which began with a KN-23 (Iskander like) SRBM test on May 4. The last test was of a large calibre MLRS system on August 24. I wanted to devote this post to a smaller one focusing on guidance alone, but the publication of the UN’s Panel of Experts report on North Korea related sanctions has scooped me.  In that report the PoE states the recent round of testing demonstrates North Korea has a “comprehensive and autonomous” missile programme. I concur with this conclusion, as I always have, yet the “bluff hypothesis” dies hard I notice. It is argued by Vann Van Diepen and Daniel Depetris at 38North the latest testing doesn’t fundamentally alter the deterrence equation on the Korean peninsula. True enough, a point to which we return, however notice the dilemma of deterrence exists in Pyongyang not necessarily Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. That dilemma partially underpins the latest round of ballistic missile testing, a good portion of which, for example, occurred from or near airbases (and terrain providing foliage and cover) which is an indication of the concerns North Korean planners have about Washington and Seoul’s decapitation capabilities and plans.

The formalisation of changes to North Korea’s constitution has come hot on the heels of the sabre rattling. There’s this general idea in analysis and commentary that everything North Korea does is related to external relations, especially those with the United States. But the August 24 date for the last test and the enacting of constitutional amendments thereafter might be an indication these have served an important domestic political function, namely they’ve supported the elevation of Kim Jong-un’s formal status akin to Kim Il-sung. The latest test and operational launches are neatly bookended by this process. The SPA announced the constitutional amendments just before the tests started and the last test occurred just before the formal enacting of these amendments. It’ll be interesting to see whether the tempo of testing continues after the formalisation of the constitutional amendments. Thus far we’ve had two Saturday’s missile free.

What does this portend for denuclearisation diplomacy? The tests have been accompanied by superheated, indeed at time graphic, rhetoric. That doesn’t look good, but then again North Korea has moved to negotiations in the past under a political shield provided by blood curdling rhetoric. We could get a repeat now. In the middle of this there have been statements from Pyongyang indicating North Korea will initiate working level talks with US officials. We shall have to see whether the tide turns, or better still we could get real and offer Pyongyang a strategic stability agreement (short of nuclear abolition) it can’t refuse.

Okay, back to the missiles. We’ve seen testing of the KN-23 Iskander like SRBM, a new large calibre MLRS best viewed as a missile, and an ATACMS like short range tactical missile. The nomenclature gets a bit confusing. The KN-23 (US IC designation) is clear enough, but in order of appearance (how the US IC sorts these things) you’d expect the large calibre MLRS system to be the KN-24 and the ATACMS like missile the KN-25. Yet a South Korean media report has the US designating the large calibre MLRS the KN-25. The new MLRS was the last system tested, and the KN-25 designation makes sense on the supposition that it’s different to the MLRS tested earlier in the latest round of missile launches. So, we’d have, presumably, the KN-23 (Iskander like SRBM,) the KN-24 (new MLRS system based on a guided tactical missile of longer range and larger calibre than the KN-09), the KN-25 (a longer length guided tactical missile than the KN-24), with the ATACMS presumably designated the KN-26.

A problem here is North Korea doctored the images of some MLRS tests.

I’m gonna stick to the following (tentatively until this shit gets sorted); KN-23 (Iskander like SRBM), KN-24 (large calibre MLRS), and KN-25 (ATACMS like missile). I’m going with this because that’s how the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative North Korea missile testing database does it. Note that the database does not include the large calibre MLRS but does include the ATACMS like missile.

So KN-23 (tested to 690km range, 50km apogee, 0.9m diameter)

KN-24 (wheeled and tracked TEL versions tested to 250km range, 0.4-to-0.6m calibre)

New large calibre MLRS test prior to August 24
New large calibre MLRS test prior to August 24
August 24 large calibre MLRS test
August 24 large calibre MLRS test
August 24 large calibre MLRS test

KN-25 (tested to 400km range).

The last North Korean missile test (yes I’m calling the KN-24 MLRS system missile not rocket based) was on August 24. That was after the Alliance 19-2 US-South Korea command post exercises that attracted Pyongyang’s wrath, a point emphasised by commentators. North Korea’s recent spat of sabre rattling was considered largely a response to Alliance 19-2 (and the delivery of some F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to South Korea) and Pyongyang’s (my view credible) claim that President Trump promised Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom a suspension of military exercises. The North Koreans in their statements did little to disabuse us of this, often alluding to both sometimes with pretty graphic rhetoric as noted. The last KN-24 test did come after Alliance 19-2 (ended August 20), however August 25 is Songun Day in North Korea. This marks Kim Jong-il’s August 25, 1960 visit to the Seoul 105th Guards Tank Division (a Guards unit in the Soviet nomenclature is a famed unit; the 105th Tank Brigade took Seoul when thereafter it was elevated to a division hence “Seoul” and “Guards” much like the 1st Guards Tank Army of Stalingrad, Uranus, Kursk and Berlin fame), seen as the first step in KJI’s “Songun” (or military first) policy of the 1990s. The August 24 KN-24 MLRS test could have been Songun Day related hence the post Alliance 19-2 date.

I suspect there were both internal and external political reasons, on top of the military operational related, for the latest round of missile launches.

There are two things of a technical nature I’d like to focus on. That being the calibre and guidance of the KN-24 and KN-25 (the US ATACMS like SRBM), before concluding with some remarks on strategic stability implications.

The KN-24 and KN-25

The KN-24 is depicted as a large calibre and long range multiple launch rocket system, and it sure looks like one. However, the fins on the payload section suggest we have ourselves here more than a free rocket over ground. The fins indicate the KN-24 is guided, hence is best viewed as a missile. According to a Japanese assessment North Korea’s new relatively shorter range (for South Korea none of these are really “short range”) missiles (the KN-23, KN-24 MLRS, and KN-25 ATACMS like) are designed to evade and suppress missile defence. Those fins on the KN-24 MLRS feature as important empirical evidence supporting that view. As does the apogee of all three, which sits in a sweet spot above the maximum interception altitude of PAC-3 BMD and the 50km minimum interception of THAAD and Aegis based BMD. The BMD related contention on the strategic-operational front is surely correct.

The KN-24 has been compared to Pakistan’s Nasr MLRS system, and Pakistan has stated Nasr was developed, in part, to counter India’s growing interest in missile defences. The Nasr, according to the Pakistani’s, is capable of inflight and terminal manoeuvring. That’s consistent with an anti BMD mission profile. There’s been some confusion during the recent tests, especially early in the day, as to what North Korea was precisely testing. We really knew after KCNA released images. That’s not just because some of the ranges and apogees for the KN-23 and KN-24 have been similar. Some reports have suggested similar, therefore pseudo ballistic, flight profiles. Perhaps that’s an indication the KN-24 MLRS guided missile also is capable of inflight manoeuvre.    

But this is where the comparison gets really interesting. Nasr is seen as nuclear capable, and as a response to India’s Cold Start Doctrine. Whether India can pull off Cold Start and whether it even exists is hotly debated. The Cold Start Doctrine, reportedly, calls for India to develop combined arms (armour, mechanised infantry, artillery and aviation) strike groups nimble enough to rapidly assemble, deploy, and manoeuvre into Pakistan, blitzkrieg like, during a crisis to coerce Pakistan to cede to Delhi’s terms.  Nasr, then, is for laying area suppression fire against combined arms battle groups and not just with conventional firepower either. Nasr, which has a 70km range and an approx 0.4m diameter, is also regarded as being capable of delivering a tactical nuclear warhead (of some 0.5-to-5 kilotonnes TNT yield). The KN-24, which Pyongyang has characterised as a large calibre tactical guided rocket, is assessed (preliminary) by analysts as having an approx. 0.6m diameter. As noted the KN-24 has at least a 250km range. The Nasr has a 400kg throw weight, which is not to say the KN-24 does also. If there are two new MLRS tactical guided missiles, the first (recall pixelated imagery for the earlier tests), we would have an approx 0.4m calibre for the first and 0.6m calibre for the second.

Now North Korea in its nuclear testing has demonstrated greater capabilities than Pakistan (after all Pakistan didn’t test an H-bomb in 1998). So, does North Korea have a nuclear warhead compact enough to be delivered by a 0.4m diameter KN-24 MLRS tactical guided missile? We don’t know. Comparing North Korea’s nuclear test programme with Pakistan’s gives us no reason to rule it out a priori.  Fissile materials, however, could be a constraining factor. Compact low yield nuclear weapons require more plutonium than their larger volume versions. I assume plutonium for the fissile core for mass reasons (a greater mass of HEU would be needed for the same volume). It is generally recognised North Korea has developed composite pit warheads, but still the low annual plutonium production capability of the 5MWe plutonium production reactor limits what Pyongyang can do with plutonium. Should the denuclearisation talks fizzle to nothing (high cross section there I’m afraid) the completion of the experimental light water reactor at Yongbyon gives North Korea more options.

The KN-25 is North Korea’s latest missile system. It very much resembles the US ATACMS short range ballistic missile. Is it an entirely new system? I’m not so sure it is. The booster shares features with the booster of the KN-23 (Iskander like) SRBM. A North Korean press statement emphasised that it was designed and developed very recently, which further suggests it is based on the KN-23 rather than being designed and developed from the ground up (as it were). Analysis (again preliminary) suggests the KN-25 payload section has a diameter (calibre) of 0.6m. That’s more than the calibre of the KN-24 MLRS guided tactical missile but less than the KN-23 SRBM (which is widely assessed as nuclear capable). But do bear in mind our little nomenclature kerfuffle.

The thing is what Cold Start is for Pakistan, OPLAN-5015 is for North Korea. This is the reported US operational plan for a second Korean War, which (again reportedly) features preemptive strike options and enveloping Pyongyang with combined arms pincers. While there is debate about whether India can pull off Cold Start, there isn’t any doubt US (and ROK) forces can deploy combined arms operational units exhibiting mass, manoeuvre, speed, and lethality across the battlefield.  North Korean planners have long been animated by what Desert Storm showed US forces are capable of. The Desert Storm ground campaign consisted of Schwarzkopf’s famous “left hook” enveloping Iraq’s forces in the Kuwait Theatre of Operations (XVIII Airborne Corps featheriest to the west into southern Iraq and VII Corps with its heavy armour smashing into the Republican Guards divisions northside of the KTO, whilst a Marine Expeditionary Force marched from the south on Kuwait City). Reports of OPLAN-5015 are a bit similar in that, reportedly, a US-ROK combined force pushes from the south whilst a right hook from Wonsan completes the envelopment of Pyongyang and ensnares the vast bulk of the Korean People’s Army armour and mechanised infantry corps. The hook through Wonsan cuts off Pyongyang from Beijing. Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, stated the plan for Saddam’s army was simple; “first we’re gonna cut it off, then we’re gonna kill it.” Thus it transpired. So it appears with OPLAN-5015 where the plan for the North Korean regime seems equally simple in the event of a second Korean War; “first we’re gonna cut it off, then we’re gonna kill it.”

We should remember Kim Jong-un has stated flatly should there be no progress in diplomacy with the United States by the end of the year, Pyongyang may resume nuclear and long range missile testing in 2020. If North Korea hasn’t developed a workable tactical nuclear weapon like that reportedly launched by Pakistan’s Nasr the resumption of testing at Punggye-ri gives the North’s nuclear scientists something to aim for. The standard assumption has been North Korea is not building the type of nuclear weapons suitable for battlefield use. During 2017 I had written some posts here questioning that assumption. I had argued North Korean strategic planners would want to give Kim Jong-un a “theory of victory” not just a strategic deterrent. Korea is not a desert, indeed it’s quite hilly, and that gives large scale enveloping operations less battlespace to manoeuvre through. Concentrations of armour, mechanised infantry and artillery would be susceptible to low yield tactical nuclear attack.  Even better would be striking against maritime forces at sea preparing to embark in and around Wonsan for the drive to Pyongyang. North Korean planners are assumed to have learnt an important lesson from both Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, namely don’t let the US mass its forces unopposed. The relatively long range of the large calibre MLRS and the KN-23 SRBM (over the INF floor) give KPA commanders the ability to target not just the southern front, but also the eastern front including off the cost of Wonsan. To do this properly, given the relative low yield of the nuclear systems, requires accuracy.

There’s a certain logic here. Should Pyongyang seek to self-reliantly not just deter a US attack but to defeat one, tactical nuclear weapons designed to break apart the pincers of OPLAN 5015 makes sense. In the KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 missile systems Pyongyang is building a theoretical means to deliver tactical low yield nuclear weapons, even if they don’t already possess weapons of sufficient compactness for them. At a bare minimum the ATACMS like missile system and the large calibre MLRS give KPA ground forces the ability to subject enemy ground forces to conventional area suppression fire beyond the counter battery fire of opposing artillery. However, these systems would be deployed on a battlefield characterised by US-ROK air superiority. That provides an incentive to add a nuclear dimension.

Okay, So What of Guidance?

A good part of attention has been focused on what the KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 testing might indicate regarding North Korea’s solid fuel missile production capacities. That’s a thing. But there’s also the question of guidance. In 2017 the dominant view was that North Korea’s long range missiles, the Hwasong-12, 14, and 15, were significantly inaccurate perhaps beyond the 10km CEP mark. I was sceptical about that, as readers would know. One of the KN-23 tests was fired from the west, over the Pyongyang area, and struck an islet in the East Sea (August 06 from Kwail Airbase, South Hwanghae Province 38.421522, 125.024421). That indicates both confidence in reliability and accuracy. The UN Panel of Experts report made interesting remarks about guidance, as noted, and although errors in inertial guidance systems accumulate, nonetheless it’s hard to believe the capabilities North Korea has showed off recently won’t be reflected in better guidance for its entire missile fleet including the longer range systems. As stated, this was to be a major focus of this post. That’s important because greater accuracy for its long range systems translates into greater assurance Pyongyang’s hydrogen bombs will hit urban-industrial targets on the continental United States. The PoE report stated

“According to another Member State, the DPRK has achieved indigenous capabilities in the production of guidance systems…According to the first Member State, the DPRK has upgraded its SCUD-D missile systems with better guidance and electronics…systems integration and internal synergies ensure that developments on the SRBM programme benefit MRBM/IRBM and ICBM programmes…DPRK procurement agents procured high-tech communication equipment for missile-to-ground communication that can operate at very high altitudes. The DPRK regularly procures Glonass/GPS sensors at intervals of around two months.”

With regard to solid fuel development the PoE report states

“According to one Member State the DPRK is actively engaged in indigenous R&D and the production of missiles with solid propellant, inter alia at the industrial complex of Hamhung. According to another Member State, there is a clear development progression from propellant for artillery rockets/SRBMs to solid propellant for ICBMs…according to one Member State, the DPRK’s current goal appears to be to develop a solid-fueled first stage for its ICBM.”

The report contains imagery of similar white container activity at North Korea’s solid fuel facility and solid motor casing facility.

That paints a picture not unlike 2017 and liquid propelled long range missiles. Before we saw the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 we saw the Hwasong-12 IRBM, based on the same booster stage as the Hwasong-14 and the same liquid propelled engine system as the HS-14 and HS-15 booster. The PoE report could be alluding to work on a solid fuelled Hwasong-12 equivalent, which forms the basis for a subsequent solid fuelled ICBM. In which case, 2020 could look a lot like 2017.

An Arms Race and Strategic Stability

As North Korea tested away South Korea announced a major strategic build up, in many respects designed to enhance its capacity for preemptive decapitation strikes and ballistic missile defence which are of a piece. BMD should be regarded as a first strike weapon. It was announced also that Japan would acquire the SM3-BlockIIA missile defence interceptor, the most capable US missile defence interceptor. The South Korean strategic build up is planned to include two more ground based radars (the current THAAD radar does not provide all azimuth coverage), three Aegis equipped destroyers and the introduction of the SM-3 missile interceptor, and new PAC-3 interceptors. All of this augments KAMD (Korea Air and Missile Defence). The build up is also planned to include enhancing South Korea’s “strategic strike capabilities” using precision guided missiles launched from the ground, the sea from surface vessels, submarines under the sea, and the air. According to Seoul’s ministry of defence,

“South Korea is superior to North Korea in short-range ballistic missiles qualitatively and quantitatively… We will secure ample interception capabilities against new types of ballistic missiles North Korea has recently test-fired”

This walks and talks like an arms race.

Recall the point about plutonium production constraints. We have a fairly good idea such constraints don’t affect the North’s uranium enrichment programme, which broke out long ago. In his 2019 New Year address Kim Jong-un spoke of investing in nuclear power to help alleviate North Korea’s energy crisis. Don’t be surprised if we see signs Pyongyang is rejigging its abandoned large gas cooled, graphite moderated, nuclear reactor programme. Such reactors might produce electricity, but fuelled by natural uranium they also make for an ideal plutonium production reactor. North Korea did begin, but abandoned following the Agreed Framework, a 200MWe graphite moderated reactor at Taechon which would have been able to produce 220kg of plutonium annually. There have been signs of low level activity at the Taechon site this year, but notice after Kim’s 2019 new year address.  There are parallels here to Chernobyl and Windscale, which would add another dimension to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Enhanced plutonium production would enable North Korea to do something the US and the Soviet Union did; produce both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

We have ourselves the trappings of an arms race, and one which could lead to a Chernobyl style nuclear accident and inadvertent nuclear weapons use. So, although I’d agree with the characterisation the latest North Korean testing does not alter the deterrence calculus on the Korean peninsula in a major way, it may well, nonetheless, detract from strategic stability. That’s because tactical nuclear weapons (but also the Pukukgsong-2 SLBM for the Romeo Class Mod SSB) might pose command and control dilemmas for Pyongyang during a crisis. Furthermore, we don’t know much about the efficiency of North Korea’s early warning system. Even if the weapons system we have been discussing are limited to the conventional sphere, an exchange of conventional strike systems could escalate or be mistaken for the opening salvo of a nuclear attack. Strategic stability is not just a function of deterrence. In 1983 the US deterred the USSR, and the USSR deterred the US, but that didn’t prevent the Able Archer crisis of 1983 or other close shaves. The problem with deterrence theory is though rational it is not realist. Nuclear weapons deter a rational actor, but states, much less human beings, are not necessarily rational actors. To recognise this is to be a realist. That’s why Kenneth Waltz, when discussing nuclear proliferation specifically, wasn’t a realist even though he claimed to be one (I’d argue this applied to his theoretical work given its positivist basis).

We have similar dynamics elsewhere. What we observe on the Korean peninsula we have observed in South Asia. We see the same with respect to the central strategic balance between Russia and the United States. There appears to be a desire to suck China into a similar dynamic, that is to compel its reversal of minimum existential deterrence. The Cold War exhibited only one strategically destabilising nuclear relationship. Now we see multiple versions, with more on the horizon (think Middle East). To be a realist is to recognise this is not the way to ensure the world’s security. Reason has its charms and its faults, but our ideological construal of it may yet prove fatal and not just in the nuclear domain.

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Nenoksa and Chernobyl: Will a New Arms Race Make the Sky Fall in on Mankind?

Parallels have been drawn between a mysterious explosion, on August 8, near the Russian village of Nenoksa, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. The explosion was accompanied by an, albeit brief, spike in radiation levels detected at Severodvinsk, a city of some 180,000 people. This has come at a time when I have been indulging my own personal obsession with Chernobyl, rekindled by the hullabaloo over the HBO series (haven’t seen it). That obsession stems from my own Chernobyl story (I was caught up in Chernobyl, blueberries, cover up and all). Last week, i.e. before August 8, I had wanted to write a post on what I considered to be parallels with today’s situation, a renewed arms race and an out of control nuclear complex, and the increased risk of nuclear accidents. However, work commitments precluded this. Oh, well, what a pity. It would have been a prescient post.

The connection drawn between Nenoksa and Chernobyl is limited to the matter of a cover up, but things are much more wide ranging than this. It is not clear precisely what happened at Nenoksa, given Moscow’s lack of transparency if not outright deception, but there are two dominant theses.

I think the issues germane to any discussion of the wider implications of Nenoksa are very deep ones. They go so far as to encroach on economic growth and democracy themselves. But before we look at this, how about we start by discussing the two theses regarding what happened at Nenoksa.

What Happened?

The first is that the explosion, and radiation spike, was caused by a failed test of Russia’s Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile (SSC-X-9 “Skyfall” US designation). The second is the explosion was the result of a failed test of another, perhaps as yet publicly unknown, system rather than the Burevestnik.

The case for notes that Russia’s previous failed Burevestnik tests (hence “Skyfall”) were conducted at a testing facility at Novaya Zemlya, however that facility has since been closed. A new facility, with the same appearance as the Novaya Zemlya facility so therefore suggesting the same MO, was recently detected through satellite image analysis to have been completed at a military testing facility near Nenoksa. The nuclear fuel transport ship, the Serebryanka was also observed to be in the area, known to be involved in the Burevestnik testing programme, at the time of the explosion and that in a previously designated exclusion zone.  Five people are known to have died, employees of Rosatom Russia’s state owned nuclear corporation, some of whom were from Sarov (Soviet era Arzamas-16) Russia’s premier military nuclear research and design facility. The satellite images and analysis that has enabled the plausible framing of this hypothesis is due to a team of researchers affiliated with the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. One of the researchers, Jeffrey Lewis, has published an article summing up their findings in Foreign Policy.

The evidence provided suggests something suss was up at Nenoksa.

The second thesis holds that the explosion likely was not Burevestnik related, firstly, because it’s unlikely Moscow would have shifted testing of Burevestnik from Novaya Zemlya to a more populated region especially after a series of failures. Furthermore, the official Russian account has emphasised the system in question was a “liquid propellant propulsion system” based on an “isotopic power source.” See also here for another Russian report. Given that Burevestnik is a ramjet nuclear cruise missile, ergo the August 8 incident could not have involved the Burevestnik.  Russian statements have also stated the test was conducted not from land, i.e. from the Nenoksa facility, but from sea off a floating barge. Moreover, the explosion happened after, it’s claimed, a successful test and the explosion itself was of liquid rocket propellants on deck. Russia’s preferred storable liquid rocket propellant is UDMH, which is highly explosive, and was front and centre in the Nedelin catastrophe. The claimed isotopic power source is not consistent with the radiation spike in Severodvinsk, however Russian official claims have always drawn a distinction between propulsion system and power source which, if true, suggests Nenoksa is not relatable to Burevestnik. There is, however, a statement from the Russian Federal Nuclear Centre, part of the Rosatom empire whose employees were killed in the explosion, saying the workers were involved in producing small scale reactors using “radioactive materials, including fissile and radioisotope materials.”

This has widely been interpreted as a direct reference to the involvement of fissile materials, i.e. a reactor, in the events leading to the Nenoksa explosion. Strictly speaking, however, that’s an implication drawn from the remarks rather than a direct admission and should be presented as such (pending further information). If the test was successful (i.e. full system test) then the radiation spike should have been more widespread (a nuclear cruise missile is dirty), but the second thesis holds the spike should have been more widespread regardless. A liquid propelled rocket engine could be used to accelerate the Burevestnik to the required velocity whereupon the nuclear ramjet system takes over. The video of a purported Burevestnik launch from Putin’s infamous March 2018 presidential address suggests so (o.o4sec)

One of the main proponents of the second thesis is Pavel Podvig, the world’s leading nuclear security analyst working in the public domain (which doesn’t mean he’s right). Russian statements have been a bit confusing. Some speak of a liquid propelled jet engine. That doesn’t make sense. Then liquid propelled rocket engine. There’s also been reference to liquid propulsion system. This could be a confused way of trying to deny a failed test of the Poseidon nuclear powered torpedo. Use of “jet,” “liquid propulsion” and assuming a nuclear power source would fit these descriptors. This is very, very speculative however.

I think it’s too early to be definitive here, but the issue seems to boil down to how much veracity one puts on official Russian statements i.e. (a) none or very little hence thesis one or (b) some but not totally hence thesis two. At this stage, if asked, I’d wager money on it being Burevestnik. I hope we get more information on this soon. Thus far both Greenpeace (radiation) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (explosion) have collected data on Nenoksa.


One thing is clear, a renewed nuclear arms race, one we’re already in and which may escalate further as the last remnants of strategic nuclear arms control are torn asunder, risks more nuclear accidents of the type that characterised the nuclear era. We’d be heading back to what Kate Brown, the author of a superb account of the aftermath of Chernobyl (just read), called “Plutopia.” In the Foreign Policy article linked above on the case for Burevestnik this is the main implication drawn from the Nenoksa incident, and that’s surely correct regardless of which Nenoksa thesis turns out to be true. The article, however, does not include Chernobyl. It should.

At the core of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, whose consequences Brown argues were more far reaching than hitherto popularly believed, was the RBMK-1000 reactor. The RBMK-1000 reactor had a “positive void coefficient” rather than the “negative void coefficient” typical of boiling water reactors and pressurised water reactors. The void coefficient measures the reactivity of a reactor as steam, “voids,” form in the reactor per percentage change in void volume. A positive void coefficient is associated with an increase in reactivity per percentage change in void volume. A positive void coefficient was a feature of the natural uranium, graphite moderated, design of the RBMK-1000. The RBMK-1000 design was, partly, chosen so that it could produce weapons grade plutonium in addition to generating electricity. The reactors of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station, as it turned out, didn’t produce plutonium but the positive void coefficient was at the heart of the accident.

The nuclear arms race of the cold war made Chernobyl possible. It was more than just a result of the “unique” features of Soviet society. What also made Chernobyl possible, related also to the cold war, was the special status, as a symbol of modernity, given to the nuclear complex and the way its interests came to predominate over society. The nuclear complex was out of control, especially during the Brezhnev era. That also was the case in the US during the “cold war bubble” physics enjoyed in America’s version of Plutopia. When you think about the Burevestnik, Russia’s floating nuclear power reactor, the end of the INF treaty, the push for a low yield version of the W76 nuclear warhead, and the end of the JASONs in the interests of a resurgence of plutonium pit production if not of the Reliable Replacement warhead programme, you get a picture where again the nuclear complex is breaking free of social control. This will lead to more nuclear accidents. We should remember that the Chernobyl cover up, the dominant narrative in media accounts of Nenoksa, wasn’t just a Soviet cover up. According to Brown, in her Manual for Survival, political leaders in the West were in on the act especially with reference to the broader effects of Chernobyl on Belarus and Ukraine and the health effects of exposure to low doses of radiation.

The other thing, completely ignored by everyone despite the recent attention given it, is that Chernobyl shows how insane the nuclear strategy doctrines are that underpin such things as the W76-2, RRW and so on. This is the strategy of “intra-war deterrence” otherwise known as “escalate to deescalate.” This is US doctrine, more so than Russian (for now). Here limited nuclear strikes during an acute crisis are treated as a type of signalling or bargaining extending the deterrence relationship even after the threshold from conventional to nuclear war has been crossed. Chernobyl, an accident in one nuclear reactor, stretched the Soviet emergency response system and led to massive consequences for human life. How can anybody seriously contemplate the controlled use of nuclear weapons as a communication tool when only Chernobyl, let alone nuclear exchanges, challenged society’s ability to cope with a nuclear emergency? The zenith of intra-war deterrence thinking was reached in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, and Chernobyl in 1986 showed how insane it was. As I have written here often, the renewed phase in the nuclear arms race is taking us “back to the future” that is back to the 21st century the 1980s promised us bar for Gorbachev and his “new thinking.”

Economic Growth

We might take things deeper still. The new nuclear arms race is often presented in terms of a putative “security dilemma,” much as with the first, touched off by the advent of ballistic missile defence and the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the cornerstone agreement of strategic arms control. That’s doubtless a factor, but this overly simplifies the original arms race and this, seemingly, new one. Technological innovation during the cold war, in both the Soviet Union and the United States, was centred upon the military-industrial complex and that because science and technology, crucial to post war economic growth, subsisted in hierarchical societies (one more authoritarian than the other). The arms race was how both systems socialised the risk and cost necessary for pursuit of basic, fundamental, advances in science and technology hence economic growth.

The interesting thing now is that, a matter that correlates with the neoliberal era, economic growth is relatively anaemic. During the heyday of the cold war, both here and there, trend rates of economic growth were much higher than they have been since 1980. Robert Gordon, in his fascinating and must read The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth, argues were heading for a period of relative economic stagnation what some have dubbed “secular stagnation.” Gordon supposes this because the technological innovations that have transformed modern life, such as the internal combustion engine, can only be invented once.

Vladimir Putin, not just Dmitri Medvedev when President, has stated that Russia must transform the structure of its economy toward high technology industrial production. Commodity based growth makes for fragile and unstable growth, a view widely shared among the Russian political elite. All the talk of advanced cyberwarfare, advanced nuclear reactors, hypersonic warfare, artificial intelligence warfare, is about attempting to achieve new advanced technologies to spur a new wave of productivity growth. That includes new materials technology, new propulsion systems, new aerospace technology, new information technology systems. We are seeing here an attempt to beat back the threat of secular stagnation, while maintaining the traditional hierarchical nature of our societies. Russia, America, and China are trying to achieve a competitive advantage in the technologies of tomorrow. Even reports before the end of the ABM Treaty, such as the Rumsfeld Commission on space policy, argued that the state needs to reinvest heavily in aerospace research and development.

This means that the two greatest threats to the health of human civilisation, the threat of nuclear war and the threat of global warming, are deeply connected. The connection is drawn by economic growth. It is, of course, economic growth through fossil fuel use that has led to the greenhouse effect and it is the desire to establish a new era of economic growth that is leading to a renewed nuclear arms race. If we were to be particle physicists, we would say that the nuclear threat and the climate threat are dual. Indeed, according to Piketty, relatively anaemic economic growth over the medium to long term will lead to levels of economic inequality not seen since Dickensian England. Perhaps we might add that into the mix, while were at it.


The Nenoksa accident, accompanied by military related accidents near Krasnoyarsk, coupled with the ongoing demonstrations in Moscow have led to renewed discussion about the nature of Putin’s Russia and the future of Russian society. That is appropriate. Vladimir Putin presents ballistic missile defence, NATO expansion, and Western unilateralism, as Russia most acute security threats. All of these are doubtless real matters for concern, to which we return (note global warming doesn’t make Putin’s list). However, Vladimir Putin himself should be on that list. The institutional structure of Russian society continues to be brittle even after some 20 years into Putin’s reign. Politics in Russia remains clan like, with clans linked to oligarchs vying for access to the top. This still is a dominant feature of Russian society. As in the 1980s during the Soviet period, an anti oligarchic mood is spreading through the society. Putin saved Russia from the ravages of the 1990s, when a neoliberal inspired experiment led to a demographic and industrial collapse usually associated with great power war or some similar calamity, yet the case remains that the charismatic leader at the top is key to Russia’s stability. What will happen when Putin departs the scene? A return to the 1990s is a distinct possibility, and that will have devastating consequences, two Panzer armies worth at the least, for Russian society. Then the 1st Guards Tank Army will be useless, much less the Burevestnik.

During the 1990s President Yeltsin, one of history’s more significant traitors, crushed his two main political rivals, his Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, and parliament speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and that through the use of force. Let’s not forget the shelling of the Russian parliament by Yeltsin was enthusiastically supported by the Clinton administration. The opposition to Yeltsin was presented as being “die hard communists” in western public discourse, even though both Rutskoi and Khasbulatov opposed the coup against Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s opposition called for two things. Firstly, a social market economy and, secondly, a parliamentary democracy. How different Russia would be today if such ideas constituted Russian political and economic life. One thing that would be different is that Russia would be a more democratic society, and one based on more stable and representative institutions. We would not have had the privatisations of the 1990s, robbery on a grand scale and nor the oligarchs. That alternative was foreclosed by Yeltsin’s tanks, and it is the constitution that he drew up creating an imperial presidency through which Putin rules. We must remember that the foreclosing of this alternative was deeply supported by the West, and the petty bourgeoisie of Moscow and St Petersburg, which preferred a continuation of the diabolical neoliberal experiment and a Russia reduced to its knees. The West doesn’t like Putin, not unlike Boris Berezovsky, because, it so turned out, Putin doesn’t follow orders unless from Yuri Andropov.

The current demonstrations have attracted the support of western politicians, analysts and commentators. Those expressions of support are insincere. As during the 1990s they are reflective of a desire to take advantage of whatever turmoil exists in Russian society to advance the geopolitical interests of the West. A genuine supporter of Russia’s courageous protest movements, rather, would offer a hand of support by declaring that, to follow Gorbachev, Europe is “our common home.” A genuine supporter of Russia’s protests would not regard Russia an alien civilisation to be forever excluded from a common European architecture unless it comes begging on hands and knees. That means foreclosing NATO expansion, indeed ridding Europe of this millstone around its neck, and allowing Russia to reach its own social arrangements free of outside interference. If you reject this, as most do, then the only Russia you like is the supplicant of the 1990s. The Russia you will eventually get, after another repeat of the 1990s, will be Putin’s Russia redux only if you’re lucky. More likely would be a fascist Russia, a fascist Russia armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

It is only appropriate that an analysis of the possible role of the Burevestnik in the August 8 explosion should take us here. The Stormy Petrel (“Burevestnik”) is a beautiful bird. Before the Burevestnik was either a nuclear cruise missile or a Bolshevik newspaper, it was a Russian anarchist paper.  Global warming and the new phase of the nuclear arms race are intimately linked for in their union we discern the key task befalling civilisation. It is nothing less than finding, and bringing into being, the appropriate social form conversant with the continued economic, social, scientific, and technological progress of mankind.

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When Physics Became a Gigolo: Superprofits For Supergravity.

“Is the end in sight for theoretical physics,” asked Stephen Hawking at his inaugural lecture as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Hawking defined “the end” of theoretical physics to be the successful development of a complete, consistent, and unified physical theory able to account for all possible observations. Toward the end of the lecture Hawking singles out what he regarded to be a promising candidate for this, namely N=8 supergravity.

The Lucasian Chair is named after Henry Lucas, a powerful and wealthy benefactor whose money led to the establishment of the professorship in 1663. You can read Hawking’s inaugural lecture as published by the CERN Courier in two parts; part 1 linked here and part 2 linked here.

Thus far supergravity has accounted for no observations other than those already accounted for. Rather than describing all possible observations, supergravity describes precisely zero.  This has not prevented the three inventors of supergravity, Sergio Ferrara, Dan Freedman and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, from being awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize of $3 million ($1 million each) from a foundation funded by Yuri Milner, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Anne Wojcicki all extremely wealthy individuals. Nature has a good article on this, and both Sabine Hossenfelder and Peter Woit have good posts on their respective weblogs.

Supergravity is a theory of quantum gravity, which like most of the species posit a hypothetical spin 2 particle, the graviton, as the carrier of the gravitational force. The standard model does not include gravity, and general relativity is not a quantum theory of gravity. The super in supergravity comes from supersymmetry, which holds that all particles, bosons and fermions, have a supersymmetric partner. A boson has a fermion superpartner, and a fermion a boson superpartner. Bosons are particles with integer spin and obey Bose-Einstein statistics. The carrier particles of the forces of nature, excluding gravity, are bosons. Fermions are particles with half-integer spin, and they obey both Fermi-Dirac statistics and the Pauli exclusion principle. Supergravity holds that the graviton of quantum gravity has a supersymmetric partner known as the spin 3/2 gravitino.

The thing is that supersymmetry has not been observed in nature. The superpartners of natural supersymmetry have not been found at the LHC as was hoped by advocates of the theory. As Woit points out in his post the chances that supersymmetry, the uglier versions thereof, will be found anytime soon, or with equipment remotely on the horizon, look grim indeed. That’s a drag for a theory whose main selling point is beauty through economy of assumptions accompanied by a breadth of explanation.

Hossenfleder concludes her post by writing

“Awarding a scientific prize, especially one accompanied by so much publicity, for an idea that has no evidence speaking for it, sends the message that in the foundations of physics contact to observation is no longer relevant. If you want to be successful in my research area, it seems, what matters is that a large number of people follow your footsteps, not that your work is useful to explain natural phenomena.”

A prize worth its salt, I personally think there shouldn’t be any such prizes, is awarded for intellectual achievements that have a strong, if not overwhelming, degree of warranted assertibility. At the very least we might say that the Breakthrough Prize for supergravity is the type one expects to be awarded in an epistemological era marked by the Trump administration. In the Trump era bullshit rises to the top.

Supergravity was eclipsed as the favoured theory to end theoretical physics, not long after Hawking delivered his inaugural lecture, in what is now known as “the first superstring revolution.” It was largely forgotten. However, it again rose to prominence in the “second superstring revolution” when, in this case N=11, supergravity was shown to be dual with multiple versions of superstring theory and so part of a wider theory called “M theory.” Supersymmetry, however, remains critical to the story. With M theory also came a myriad of solutions each descriptive of a world other than the one we observe, the multiverse as it were, thus moving beyond a description of Hawking’s “all possible” observations.

We might say, then, that supergravity has indeed ushered in the end of theoretical physics for it has heralded a shift from physics to metaphysics. There’s a bit of irony here as metaphysics itself went analytical at about the same time, with Saul Kripke’s “possible worlds” semantics a type of multiverse as it were but at least it had the virtue of speaking of truth values that apply across all possible worlds (no Anthropic Principle needed bwahahaha). Formal and symbolic metaphysics is still metaphysics. The answer to Hawking’s question was YEEEES, but not quite in the way he envisaged it. For another interesting point, look at what the recipients of the Breakthrough Prize say (in the Nature article) about their use of computers to test the theory in the early days and how Hawking concludes at the end of his inaugural lecture.

The Breakthrough Prize award for supergravity tells us little, in fact nothing, about nature, but it does tell us plenty about the oligarchisation of society and the role of science in neoliberal society. As we know inequality, particularly in the United States, has risen significantly over the last 35 to 40 years. That is to say, over a period whose origins coincide with Hawking’s inaugural lecture. By the mid to late 1990s wealth and income had accumulated to the top end of society to such a degree Business Week asked in a headline, “The Problem Now: What To Do With All That Cash.” Hello, supergravity!

The funders of the Breakthrough Prize all hail from the so called “tech economy.” Their businesses would not have been possible bar for investment in basic science and technological inquiry courtesy of the public sector, which means ultimately investment by wage and salary earners. The neoliberal period has seen the burden of taxation shift from corporations, investors, and the super rich to wage earners.  The political economy of state capitalism functions as a type of reverse socialism as the public subsidises basic science and technology, which is then turned over to the corporate sector and the market as it becomes possible to draw profits from new basic and applied systems of knowledge. Socialisation of risk and cost, but privatisation of profits. In turn, the corporate sector constructs a regime of concentrated capital and power that suits its own monopoly interests, hence Microsoft and Apple et al, resulting in skyrocketing super profits and a torrential flow of resources to the top. This all stifles further innovation in the application of the new technologies, as intellectual property is corporatised, and encourages the proliferation of socially harmful effects of the type we are all too familiar with. Whatever profits accrue to the likes of the benefactors of the Breakthrough Prize go far beyond their contribution to the marginal productivity of society, hence superprofits for supergravity. I should stress that this is not an isolated one off phenomena. There are many examples where capital sourced from neoliberalism’s super rich have funded conferences, departments, research institutes and the like.

In a democratic society the proceeds of public investment in scientific and technological innovation do not accrue to the financiers of the Breakthrough Prize but rather are used in collectively determined ways to improve the human condition. As that part of society devoted to the public welfare becomes starved of funds, including the university sector, so science and intellectual endeavour more broadly finds a greater need for alternative sources of capital. During the cold war, what the MIT physicist David Kaiser called physics’ cold war bubble, physics was lavishly supported by the state. A lot of the advances in the basic sciences that made the business activities of the funders of the Breakthrough Prize possible arose in this period, with biology and biotechnology enjoying a similar status thereafter. But that cold war bubble ended at just about the same time Hawking delivered his inaugural Lucasian lecture. We can see similar processes at work in philosophy, where some philosophy departments are being lavishly endowed with the money of oligarchs.

What Paul Krugman has called “the return of the gilded age” has seen a sort of return to earlier times when intellectuals relied on wealthy benefactors, such as, say, the Elector of Hanover or Queen Christina of Sweden or Henry Lucas for that matter. The problem here is that as neoliberalism and the injustices and suffering it entails bites into the social fabric, so science itself, to our great detriment, will become increasingly associated with the system of wealth and power. Neoliberalism encourages a rise in the prevalence of irrational belief, and as scientists become synonymous in the public’s mind with a rapacious and devious elite so parts of society will drift toward a dark ages type mentality. We see this with climate change denialism, a matter of no small moment given the stakes for continued human civilisation. We’ve seen this before, when science was regarded, rightly, as a cog of the military-industrial complex. This encouraged the growth of irrational and arational epistemological doctrines.

There are some holdouts, for example the Russian mathematician Grisha Perelman who refused a $1 million Clay Prize for proving the Poincare conjecture now theorem. Alexander Grothendieck, a premier mathematician of the 20th century, who recently passed away, would without a shadow of a doubt have refused a Breakthrough Prize such was the depth of his anarchist convictions. We see Perelman and Grothendieck as nutters in our midst, yet it is their purity of mind that inspires the intellectual fancy more than Milner and his wads of cash. History may recall, I hope history is given the opportunity, it is we who are nuts not Perelman and Grothendieck.

I have written of this before, for instance in response to this article in The New York Times featuring the work of Stephen Hawking, Matthew Perry and Andrew Strominger on black holes and information loss. The Times informed us that, “Dr. Hawking and his colleagues worked in a hotel by day and were feted at night, including a party at the home of the media baron Rupert Murdoch.” The “considerable expense was covered by Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist and entrepreneur, who wanted Dr. Hawking on hand to help announce a new project to see if we can fly iPhone-like spaceships to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star.” Strominger is extensively cited in the Nature article praising supergravity and defending the awarding of the Breakthrough Prize, courtesy of Yuri Milner, by the committee of which he is a member.

Iwan Morus wrote a great book with the title When Physics Became King. In the early 20th century physics was established as the premier intellectual pursuit. Morus holds that by the eve of World War One physics became king. One hundred years later the king has become a perfumed gigolo.

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North Korea Tests More Missiles: Is an ICBM Test on the Horizon?

North Korea’s frenetic tempo of missile and multiple rocket launcher system testing continues, with yet another test today (range 450km, apogee 37km). Here I’d like to make some remarks about the diplomatic aspect, leaving aside the technical issues so we might catch ourselves some breath.

One thing I’ve seen being asked often in media reports during this period is; do these tests show North Korea isn’t interested in meaningful diplomacy? Yet in reality that question should be directed the other way around, as they appear to underscore the supposition it is Washington which is not interested in meaningful diplomacy.

The latest test comes after Monday’s start to Alliance 19-2, a joint command post exercise between the United States and South Korea (in particular it exercises the transferring of command from the US to ROK high command during a conflict. It’s interesting to think when precisely that is to occur under OPLAN 5015, for example when the pincers are to close on Pyongyang?). For the historically inclined Able Archer 83 was also a joint command and control exercise.  Rodong Sinmun today carried a Ministry of Foreign Affairs broadside at the joint US-ROK exercises, doubtless released to accompany today’s test. That broadside was more than a little tendentious, however it had some statements well worth reflecting upon. In particular, I draw attention to the following passage

“All the U.S.-south Korea joint military exercises which have been annually conducted during the past 65 years since then were unexceptionally aggressive war exercises simulating the surprise and preemptive attack on the DPRK.”

That’s tendentious, to be sure, however recent US-ROK operational planning for a second Korean war does, reportedly, emphasise preemptive attacks on the DPRK in the event of an acute crisis. North Korea perceives any military exercise conducted by the US and South Korea as reflective of those operational plans. Therefore, for Pyongyang, such exercises are part of what it calls Washington’s “hostile policy” which Pyongyang sees as contrary to the first commitment made by both parties in the Singapore Declaration.  The evidence publicly available also appears to suggest, especially at Panmunjom, President Trump directly pledged to Kim Jong-un he would suspend joint US-ROK military exercises, in which case the problem of meaningful diplomacy lies at Washington’s door.

The one tangible outcome of the Panmunjom summit was the promise of working level meetings between lower level US and North Korean officials. These meetings would hammer out the essentials of a deal on denuclearisation and sanctions relief, which Kim and Trump would then seal in a fourth summit. They were initially envisaged to occur in mid July, but Alliance 19-2 has put a stop to that. The problem now is that North Korea’s recent spat of missile tests, and the unveiling of a SSB Mod to the Romeo class submarine, are widely perceived as Pyongyang trying to leverage its growing military capabilities to get Washington to implement what it (appears) to have pledged at Panmunjom.

Let us imagine this fails, but nonetheless North Korea decides to enter working level meetings. That would make Pyongyang look weak. These working level meetings would presumably involve the US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun. This is what Biegun said not long after the failed Hanoi summit

“The marginal benefit to North Korea of economic relief is far greater than the marginal benefit to us of partial denuclearization”

A North Korean capitulation on working level meetings would suggest that to be true. The big thing here is that strategic planners in Pyongyang might think that the credibility of its nuclear deterrent is at stake, making working level meetings unlikely in the absence of a US concession on military exercises. It may make Washington think sanctions are its trump card, leaving it holding out on sanctions relief for further North Korean concessions. A North Korean capitulation on working level meetings might have hawks in Washington downplaying the credibility of Pyongyang’s deterrent, helping to entrench the view Kim’s hydrogen bomb is a paper tiger. That could make Washington even less willing to support a partial denuclearisation deal, or better still what North Korea regards as denuclearisation. Why accept denuclearisation as Pyongyang conceives of it on account of what one regards to be a paper tiger?  At the outer end of the spectrum, a North Korean capitulation might encourage hawks to be more adventurous in any future denouement or it may allow them to attain the upper hand in internal policy debates during a crisis.

North Korea, it would appear, has a strategic incentive to escalate especially now that the very credibility of its deterrence posture appears to be on the line. The Rodong Sinmun broadside certainly reflects this when it says

“We have already warned several times that the joint military exercises would block progress in the DPRK-U.S. relations and the inter-Korean relations and bring us into reconsideration of our earlier major steps.”

Consider some of the more tendentious aspects to the broadside

“the U.S. did not hesitate to conduct the missile interception test simulating an interception of our ICBMs and the test-fire of ICBM “Minuteman-3” and SLBM “Trident 2 D-5.”

The US would not have tested a Minuteman III and Trident II D-5 SLBM on account of North Korea. The mention of an ICBM in this context might be a not too subtle hint of how North Korea might escalate. The reference to the Trident II D-5 could be a hint of an upcoming KN-11 SLBM test from the Romeo SSB Mod submarine.

The big lesson to take from all this, however, is that if things get worse, we should apportion the blame squarely upon Donald Trump as it was his false promise to Kim Jong-un that got this ball rolling. If that false promise was made just to secure a nice, momentary, public relations coup then mega would be Trump’s sin. So would the media’s as the Trump Bump could end up looking like this

The North Korean broadside may be interpreted in a more hopeful light, namely so long as the exercises continue talks are off the agenda but when Alliance 19-2 ends end that’s a different story. North Korea does package good news in a hefty dose of harsh rhetoric. The broadside indeed states,

“we remain unchanged in our stand to resolve the issues through dialogue. But the dynamics of dialogue will be more invisible as long as the hostile military moves continue.”

To cite the Athenian representatives to Melos, hope is apt to be an expensive commodity. The thing isn’t to hope North Korea will enter into working level talks after Alliance 19-2 or to hope Washington engages in meaningful diplomacy, rather it’s for citizens in liberal democratic societies to pressure government toward that direction.

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North Korea Tests a New MLRS: Don’t Expect Desert Storm v 3.0

The nature of North Korea’s latest missile test has become clearer, and it turns out, according to KCNA, to have been a test of the combat effectiveness of a new multiple launch rocket system or MLRS. Kim Jong-un oversaw the test firing, according to KCNA. We’re talking here of a North Korean long range Katyusha. That makes sense given the early reports, emanating from South Korean military sources, which cited a range (250km) and apogee (30km) for the test. It’ll be interesting to see whether those numbers hold up, and the ultimate configuration of the system. Russia’s 9A52-4 Tornado has a firing range of 90km. China’s A300 MLRS (depicted below) has a reported firing range of 290km, which is like the reported range of North Korea’s new MLRS.

At time of writing I have no access to photos of the test. The KCNA statement did say that the new MLRS “will play a main role in ground military operations.” Furthermore, Kim Jong-un himself is cited as saying of the new multiple rocket launch system that “it is very great and it would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon.”

That bit about “fat target of the weapon” has attracted mirth, especially on twitter. What might this mean? Multiple rocket launch systems are area suppression weapons, and I suspect that this is what Kim means when he talks about US-ROK ground forces becoming a “fat target of the weapon.” If so, it seems to me that the test of a new MLRS, the unveiling of an SSB Mod to the Romeo class submarine, and the recent KN-23 SRBM tests are connected.

North Korean strategic planners are concerned with OPLAN 5015 the US-ROK operational plan, as opposed to contingency plan, for war with North Korea. Reports suggest that this plan includes an element of pre-emption, with South Korea’s KAMD (Korea Air and Missile Defence) and Kill Chain as important ingredients, and an enveloping attack to pincer Pyongyang so ending the regime. The Romeo SSB Mod provides planners with a capability to overcome THAAD because of the direction of its radar system, effectively flanking it from the sea with KN-11 SLBMs, the KN-23 has a pseudo ballistic flight profile designed to evade missile defence and to attack time urgent strategic targets critical to the implementation of the pre-emption options of OPLAN 5015. A long range MLRS may be designed, in part, to give the Korean People’s Army a means to suppress concentrations of manoeuvre formations crucial to enveloping Pyongyang.

The 250km range also means that the Korean People’s Army can direct artillery fire along the DMZ from a rear echelon, an important consideration given the ability of US-ROK ground forces to subject KPA artillery to counterbattery fire. The new MLRS will be beyond the range of US-ROK artillery charged with this counterbattery fire mission.

In short, this could be Pyongyang’s way of saying that a second Korean War won’t go down like Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Korean People’s Army won’t sit around and wait for the US to mass its forces; it will try to deter and to prevent the US-ROK from concentrating its forces prior to the delivery of a decisive, regime ending, blow.

Update: KCNA has released footage of the test, and it looks to be an MLRS system mounted on a tracked chassis. See pics below, some of which KCNA has pixelated. The warhead section appears to be affixed with fins, possibly of relevance for manoeuvrability.

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Plutonium Pit Lifetime and the Trump Administration’s Disbanding of the JASONs

Reuters has an excellent special report, the fruit of good old fashioned investigative journalism, on some of the details behind the Trump administration’s move against the JASON group of independent scientific consultants to the Defense Department. The JASONs have a rich history, not all of it terribly pretty by the way. The Reuters report shows that Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, was critical here. Griffin is a long time proponent of space based interceptors for ballistic missile defence. The JASONs group have long argued against the viability of spaced based interceptors, and spaced based BMD is very much in the air again. It kind of goes with “it’s morning again in America.”

Now in previous posts here and here on all this I had argued that plutonium pit aging, and what was called the Reliable Replacement Warhead during the Bush era, were significant factors behind the Trump White House’s disbanding of the JASONs. The Reuters report, I contend, supports my initial analysis.

Space based missile interception doubtless is a factor. But there’s some interesting detail toward the end of the Reuters report which suggests that the matter of plutonium pit aging was important too, if not of the first importance. The article states,

“Disbanding the program would have had a ripple effect across U.S. government agencies that use Jason research. For the summer of 2019, the Jasons had been asked to conduct 15 separate studies by seven government agencies.”

It then goes on

“Another study was Congressionally mandated for the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, to examine the aging of nuclear weapon pits, the explosive core in many types of U.S. nuclear weapons. The agency had relied on Jason’s research for decades to help secure nuclear stockpiles.”

For that JASON study into plutonium pit aging to go ahead Griffin needed to extend JASONs life by a month, at no extra cost to the government. All it needed was Griffin’s signature. Nothing doing;

“Griffin, as head of the office that let out the contract, needed to approve the decision. He said no”…(snip)… “It appears they effectively tried to kill the program,” Williams told Reuters.”

Griffin’s mean spirited mania to purge JASON clearly was an attempt to prevent the JASONs from conducting an independent investigation into plutonium pit aging. Those who have long memories will recall that JASON studies into plutonium pit aging, and the design of the first planned “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (WR-1), during the George W Bush administration effectively killed off the RRW programme. The RRW programme was an ambitious plan to recapitalise the US nuclear weapons complex, and to develop new nuclear warheads. Since the end of the Cold War the US has had a Science Based Stockpile Stewardship programme maintaining the legacy warheads from the Cold War era. Some wanted the nuclear complex to do more, to go back into the business of researching, designing, and developing new nuclear weapons from scratch. They also wanted the development of a plutonium pit manufacturing capacity able to “surge” the stockpile to Cold War era levels if required. It’s so much more sexier developing new nuclear warheads.

RRW supporters argued stockpile stewardship was flawed because instabilities and impurities would build up in plutonium pits over time, leaving the US with an unreliable, hence not terribly credible, nuclear deterrent. Democrats in Congress, who then had the numbers (and to no small degree in response to grassroots campaigns), commissioned the JASONs to study plutonium pit aging. The JASONs reported that plutonium pits have a reliable lifetime of at least 85 years and up to 100 years. But not everyone agreed with this, not least some from within the nuclear weapons complex. So, Physics Today reported in July 2018

“We disagree significantly” with the JASON findings, says LANL director Terry Wallace; he notes that pit aging extends to how plutonium interacts with other components of the pit and weapon. Siegfried Hecker, a plutonium expert who was LANL director from 1986 to 1997, also takes issue with the JASON conclusions, which he says led to a “dramatic decline” in research on pit aging. Hecker maintains that despite differences, scientists at LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were pressured to reach a consensus on aging that could be reviewed by JASON, and key aging issues were left unresolved. He also notes that since the JASON review, a reinterpretation by LANL researchers of results from underground experiments suggests the need to revise pit lifetime estimates.”

The hawkish Republican congresswoman, Elizabeth Cheney, earlier this year made the absurd claim that plutonium pits are now 100 years old. Why 100, exactly? Because of the Bush era JASON study on plutonium pit lifetimes, that’s why. When Cheney says plutonium pits are 100 years old she’s saying it’s time for RRW.

Don’t be thinking that the Reliable Replacement Warhead has been forgotten. The Trump administration’s move to wrap up the JASONs may be related to a renewed push to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme. I think the Reuters investigative report at the very least suggests this.

As I read the report, my attention was drawn to another Reuters report, this time on the remarks made by Russia’s ambassador to the UN’s Conference on Disarmament. Reuters reports the Russian representative saying, in regard to US allegations Moscow has conducted clandestine low yield nuclear weapon tests,

“It would appear that through propaganda around false claims about Russia’s compliance there are attempts to prepare international opinion for a U.S. exit from the CTBT and then to blame Russia again for everything,” the Russian diplomat said.”

These two stories could turn out to be very much related. Let us watch this space.

Oh, and yes, I do hear that North Korea has fired off some missiles again. More on that soon enough.

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Is North Korea Producing Plutonium at Yongbyon?

The previous post was long, too long perhaps, which left me with little space for discussion of North Korea’s fissile material production. Instead of including that aspect to this week’s news in the previous post, I thought I’d write up on this briefly here instead.

The Wall Street Journal this weekend has an article saying that North Korea has upped the tempo of nuclear weapons production since the first Singapore summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim. Initially it wasn’t clear whether that was a reference to final assembly of nuclear warhead and missiles, or fissile material production alone or a combination of both. That’s because the article as originally written claimed that Defense Intelligence Agency analysts had assessed that Pyongyang could have produced 12 nuclear weapons since the 2018 Singapore summit, without clarifying further what was meant by this. That claim has since been retracted. The article now confines itself like so;

“Shipping containers, trucks and crowds of people moving materials and instruments at North Korea’s key weapons facilities like the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center and the Sanum-dong missile production site, suggest North Korea has continued producing fissile material and intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

We now have a combination of missiles and fissile materials but no hard and fast measure of completed warheads mated onto missiles. That’s not really news, it must be said.

Kim Jong-un did call for the “mass production” of strategic assets in his 2018 new year address, so it’s not like Pyongyang is doing something it said it wouldn’t do. The source of the WSJ article, when you extract away the reference to the DIA, are analysts who have long maintained this position. We see here a graphic example of how the mainstream corporate media rely on nonproliferation analysts when reporting on North Korea and how nonproliferation analysts rely on the corporate media to support their discipline. The revealing of this symbiotic relationship, it seems to me, is the most newsworthy aspect of the article.

Some analysts have argued that when the article is referring to fissile materials for nuclear weapons it could not be in reference to plutonium. It can only be in reference to weapons grade uranium. A distinction between the two is certainly not made in the article. The Singapore summit was in June 2018. The main evidence supporting the no plutonium production position comes from an August 2018 IAEA report on North Korea. It’s commonly regarded that the Yongbyon nuclear reactor has not been in operation since December 2018, although this is not a consensus position. Plutonium is produced by extracting fuel rods from a nuclear reactor, after shutdown, which is then reprocessed in a reprocessing plant. The spent fuel needs to be cooled prior to reprocessing, a process that usually takes some 160 days.

According to the IAEA report North Korea had at times briefly shut down the reactor after it resumed operations (2015) up to the reporting period (August 2018) but not of sufficient duration to discharge an entire reactor core of spent fuel. Moreover, although steam was observed to be coming from the operating plant serving the Radiochemical Laboratory at Yongbyon (where North Korea reprocesses plutonium) in 2018 (up to August recall) that too was not consistent with a reprocessing campaign according to the IAEA. That suggests no plutonium production.

However, the UN Panel of Experts on the implementation of UN sanctions and North Korea’s adherence to UN resolutions, wrote in its February 2019 Report that a “member state” had informed it that the 5MWe reactor at Yongbyon was shut down from September to October 2018. It is stated that North Korea may have discharged spent fuel from the reactor in that period. According to the Panel of Experts Report the member state also reported that there was evidence of heat being generated from within the Radiochemical Laboratory in November 2018. Given it usually takes 160 days for the spent fuel to cool sufficiently for it to be reprocessed, should the Radiochemical Lab have been reprocessing plutonium it was not reprocessing plutonium from the spent fuel (possibly) discharged in September-October 2018. However, it could be reprocessed from April-May 2019 onward. That’s suggestive of normal operations.

Satellite imagery analysis from 38North has throughout 2019 concluded that the main facilities associated with plutonium are well maintained but not operating. As stated, this analysis is not a consensus position as can be seen from the WSJ article. Is the reported activity at Yongbyon consistent with plutonium production?

It cannot be ruled out.

We have here something well worth watching closely.

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Kim Rattles the Sabre: North Korea Unveils a Romeo Class SSB Mod and Conducts Two KN-23 SRBM Tests.

What an extraordinary week it was, with those of us following all things nucleus kept busy by one development after the next. As usual Kim Jong-un was front and centre, however there was more to it than North Korea this week. That said, this post is devoted to matters North Korean and hopefully we’ll have opportunity to catch up on the other stuff soon enough.

Of course, the two big developments were Kim Jong-un showing off a “new” submarine, a modification of the Soviet vintage (1950s origin) Romeo class which appears designed to give the vessel an ability to cold launch from two up to three Pukguksong-1 (KN-11 US designation) nuclear armed ballistic missiles. For more see Popular Mechanics here and The Drive here. But, really, you should see H.I. Sutton’s work which made both articles possible. The first two articles have good HD photos of the sub.

North Korea is reputed to be in possession of 20 Romeo class submarines. The new Mod, according to Pyongyang, is due to set sail soon. That claim further underscores the KN-11 centric aspect to the submarine, as North Korea has yet to test any other SLBM. The second was what appears to have been two test firings of the KN-23 solid propelled short range ballistic missile, whose pseudo ballistic flight profile is not unlike the Russian Iskander SRBM.

Both developments follow North Korea’s charge that the Trump administration had deceived Kim Jong-un at the recent impromptu (was it?) Kim-Trump summit at Panmunjom. We might recall from my last posting that Pyongyang alleges that Donald Trump directly pledged Kim Jong-un he would suspend US-ROK exercises, the upcoming Alliance 19-2 exercises, but then immediately reneged on that undertaking. Alliance 19-2 is planned to proceed. It also comes after Pyongyang angrily denounced South Korea after Seoul received a dispatch of two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters from the United States, which are important assets in Seoul’s Korea Air and Missile Defence (KAMD) and Kill Chain military strategies. Pyongyang regards the integrated nature of both as exhibiting a first strike strategic posture.

Should North Korea’s Panmunjom charge be correct, and thus far Pyongyang’s public pronouncements have more accurately reflected the diplomatic record than Washington’s, it would be the third time that Washington has misrepresented Trump’s direct engagements with Kim Jong-un. The week’s developments, therefore, I would submit underscore the analysis of my previous post and the prescience of its title; three strikes you’re right?

The week’s big two developments, I would argue, demonstrate the continued fraught nature of US-North Korea relations, which display the characteristics of a process of graduated escalation not too dissimilar to what we see in the Persian Gulf. They also show the need to pursue real diplomatic engagement directed at achieving strategic stability on the Korean peninsula. The latter is better facilitated by supporters of peace refusing the impulse to pat Trump on the back after he meets with Kim. It is far more important to help ensure there’s real diplomatic follow through by piling on the political pressure. One sees very little of this, I’m afraid.

At the moment, it is not clear that working level talks between US and North Korean officials will proceed. The prospect of such meetings was the major tangible achievement of the Panmunjom mini summit. They should have started in mid July. It is important that such talks proceed.

Right on the heels of the third Kim-Trump meeting at Panmunjom I had stated that on the day of the talks (I was enjoying the company of some nice and quite sane cows) I had the impression that Trump made Kim look like a sort of half idiotic, half exotic zoo exhibition. The ferocity of Kim’s response might be an indication that he has come to feel that way too.

Romeo Class SSB Mod Submarine

It would be an understatement to say that Kim’s showing off what KCNA declared to be a new submarine got everyone’s attention. The initial images of the submarine, with Kim by the side of the hull, had made the submarine look BIG. Boomer like.

Speculation quickly focused on the possibility of it being the long rumoured Sinpo-C class submarine, the successor to the Gorae (Sinpo-B US designation, see below) class submarine.

Previous satellite image analysis of the Sinpo shipworks facility by 38North earlier in the year suggested that something big was potentially in the works, and leaks of purported US intelligence assessments had North Korea working on a new submarine, with a beam of 11 metres (i.e. the rumoured Sinpo-C), for launching ballistic missiles.

North Korea has one Gorae class submarine (see above), and H.I. Sutton of the Covert Shores blog was the first independent submarine warfare analyst to have discovered it (2014). According to Sutton’s analysis the Gorae has one missile launch tube, inserted into the sail like early Soviet designed SSBs (ballistic missile launching submarines). Hence it “should be regarded as a test platform with limited operational capability.” Analysis naturally then focused on the KN-11 SLBM as the designated missile for the Sinpo-C.

It was fitting that it was Sutton whose analysis first demonstrated (see link in the intro) that Kim’s new submarine was in fact not a bigger Gorae or something entirely new (the Sinpo-C), but rather a modified Romeo class submarine fitted for launching ballistic missiles, likely the KN-11. His evidence is compelling. Like with the Romeo the submarine displayed by Kim has a twin propeller configuration on either side of the hull toward the stern, an angular bow, and a bulbous section at the bottom of the bow for the sonar. The draught or draft of the sub, which measures the height of the waterline to the keel, using Kim’s height of 1.7m as a reference, is analysed at about 5 metres as with the Romeo. That all makes for solid evidence for a Romeo Mod. The key modification appears to be an enlarged deck, or top side, to accommodate a larger sail, both of length and width, to accommodate missile launch tubes. It is not clear whether the Romeo Mod has incorporated Air Independent Propulsion technology, although it is unlikely. The rumoured Sinpo-C class was reported to be designed to incorporate AIP, which allows a diesel powered submarine to stay underwater for longer without surfacing to recharge its batteries.

Where all this leaves the Sinpo-C isn’t clear. As stated above, the Sinpo-C was reported to have a hull with an 11 metre beam, almost twice the size of the Romeo (6.7m beam). Does the Romeo SSB Mod mean that the Sinpo-C was mischaracterised? Or is the Romeo for the KN-11 SLBM, and the Sinpo-C for the Pukguksong-3 ballistic missile? Recall that in 2017 Kim Jong-un paid a high profile visit to the Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Sciences where a poster of a Pukguksong-3 missile was on display. The poster appeared to depict a submarine cold launch tube. The Pukguksong-3 could be a multi stage intermediate range ballistic missile, which brings us a step closer to a solid fuelled ICBM. Thus far all that is currently known publicly is that the Pukguksong-3 is a missile on a poster, although surely it is much more than a mere poster ornament. A Sinpo-C SSB with AIP technology armed with Pukguksong-3 IRBM range missiles would be able to engage in more extended deterrence patrols, typical of something akin to a boomer, than a Romeo class SSB mod armed with the KN-11. David Schmerler had published satellite images this week of a training facility at Sinpo for training crews in extended submarine operations.

What we saw this week evoked a boomer, but I don’t think (from what’s currently known and understood) it’s meant to emulate one. One of the drivers behind the KN-11 SLBM was South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a key part of KAMD. The THAAD radar is vulnerable to an all azimuth attack from the seas surrounding South Korea, because it points directly into North Korea thus leaving gaping holes in radar coverage from attacks launched by submarine.

KCNA quoted Kim Jong-un as stating that the Romeo class Mod “will perform its duty in the operational waters of the East Sea of Korea and its operational deployment is near at hand.” The Romeo class is a vintage, hence relatively noisy, submarine. Just look at the metalwork on the hull of the Romeo Mod showed off by North Korea. The Yellow Sea, on the east coast of the Korean peninsula, is shallow (mean depth 44m), making it difficult for Anti Submarine Warfare assets to distinguish and detect a submarine, even a Romeo class, from large background noise. The United States Navy was geared to detect Soviet blue water submarines during the Cold War. The Sea of Japan, i.e. the East Sea, has an average depth of 1,667 metres. The East Sea does have significantly shallower areas than the average in the Yamato Bank (toward the centre) and the Tsushima Basin although not as shallow as the Yellow Sea.

The Romeo class Mod has, predictably, been characterised in media reports as “threatening,” “menacing,” “a game changer,” all of which raises the spectre of a nuclear first strike yet it’s clear that ballistic missile defence and the felt need to ensure a survivable strategic deterrent is driving the submarine programme. North Korean strategic planners fear a disarming or decapitating or both US-ROK first strike. Generally, especially in the western arms control theory literature, strategic submarines are seen as stabilising to the extent they provide for a survivable second strike capability. So it’s interesting that in this case the mere fact of a North Korean missile launching submarine is regarded as threatening and menacing, with the liberal arms control community particularly exercised by it, whereas those of the established nuclear weapon states are considered stabilising (even when armed with MIRVed SLBMs able to be launched on depressed trajectories). Back in the day this would’ve been called nuclear apartheid. The implication is clear; the theory that underpins liberal arms control is taken as an ideological construct rather than a matter of principle.  One doesn’t adhere to Ohm’s law when it suits one’s interests, but then disregard it when one’s interests change. Theory in the social sciences can be quite the supple art.

That said, North Korea’s strategic submarine programme is destabilising although not on first strike grounds. Rather, North Korean nuclear missiles at sea add a layer of command and control complexity. We shall wait and see how the Romeo class Mod will be deployed, but one imagines that they would be surged out to sea in a crisis rather than regularly sent out to sea on deterrence patrols fully armed and ready to launch, especially in the absence of AIP technology. How will Pyongyang ensure the integrity of the chain of command? How will Pyongyang ensure uninterrupted communication with its nuclear armed submarines at sea? Will nuclear missile submarines possess predelegation orders? These and other questions are not pretty ones to contemplate. In a crisis nuclear armed North Korean submarines could be dangerous because Kim may have less control over them than land based missiles, or even lose control over them. This poses what Thomas Schelling would have called “the threat that leaves something to chance.” This shit we just don’t need.

The Return of the KN-23

Just as Jaws showed off his big, bad, teeth Kim Jong-un gave us another rerun of the KN-23 SRBM.  Two test launches were reported, both with a 50km apogee (as per the KN-23), and a range of 430km and 680km respectively. The second range is large, certainly larger than initial assessments of the KN-23 range. These figures come from South Korea, so it’s unclear whether the 680km range cited is accurate. I shall leave that aside for another day. The images of the tests clearly show KN-23 SRBMs, and the telemetry visible (Not shown here. See the released KCNA) pictures demonstrates a pseudo ballistic flight profile.

The KCNA statement accompanying the tests lacked subtlety. Kim Jong-un is cited as saying they were;

“part of the power demonstration to send a solemn warning to the south Korean military warmongers who are running high fever in their moves to introduce the ultramodern offensive weapons into south Korea and hold military exercise in defiance of the repeated warnings from the DPRK.”

That demonstrates the KN-23 has been developed with KAMD and Kill Chain in mind, and the timing of the test is related to the perceived lack of follow through from the Trump White House on its, alleged, Panmunjom pledges. The same, I suggest, should apply to the Romeo class Mod SSB. Both developments are integrated, and the timing of the photo release and the KN-23 tests should be viewed as connected too. KCNA goes on;

“Saying that he was gratified by the direct confirmation and conviction of the rapid anti-firepower capability of the tactical guided weapon system and the specific features of the low-altitude gliding and leaping flight orbit of the tactical guided missile, which would be hard to intercept, and its combat power, he noted that the fact about the development and possession of such state-of-the-art weaponry system is of huge eventful significance in developing our armed forces and guaranteeing the security of the country by military force.”

Note the “hard to intercept” part. We also have Kim paraphrased as saying;

“that the ultra-modern weapons and equipment which the bellicose forces of the south Korean military are introducing with desperate efforts are definitely offensive weapons and their purpose is absolutely clear. He stressed it is a work of top priority and a must activity for the security of the country to steadily develop powerful physical means and conduct the tests for their deployment for neutralizing those weapons posing undeniable threats to the security of the country immediately and turning them to scrap iron at an early stage when it is considered necessary.”

KAMD and Kill Chain are seen by North Korean strategic planners as reflective of a broader US-ROK first strike strategic posture, and both the Romeo Mod SSB and KN-23 have been developed to counter them early in a developing strategic crisis on the Korean peninsula.

What This Means for Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula

The week’s developments once again touched off a debate about whether North Korea should be recognised as a nuclear power. The reality, of course, is that North Korea is a nuclear power. There are many ways we might not recognise this, the most pertinent example for our purposes being refusing to recognise the reality of mutual deterrence. By seeking to present North Korea with a credible first strike threat, which would include missile defences, we would be refusing to recognise North Korea as a nuclear power. There’s something intrinsic about North Korea that makes it an illegitimate nuclear custodian hence we ought not recognise it as a nuclear armed state, whatever the reality of the situation. By contrast, accepting North Korea as a nuclear power means accepting that strategically destabilising weapon systems and strategic postures need to be foregone in the interests of collective security. This provides a useful way, then, to think of what North Korea might be referring to when it speaks of “the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.” This could mean both sides accepting a stable deterrence relationship, requiring both sides forgoing destabilising first strike capabilities, and shifting the pivot of international relations on the Korean peninsula away from the nuclear dimension hence “denuclearisation.”

Should that be taken up? We saw this week what the alternative entails, namely a graduated process of escalation that continues to add layers of strategic instability. My own view is that strategic stability should be the first step in a developing, multifaceted, diplomatic process on the Korean peninsula.  Further news this week, I would hold, underscored the case for this approach. According to the central bank of South Korea, North Korea’s economy shrank by 4.1% last year, the largest decline in 27 years, the second successive year of estimated GDP decline. North Korea’s economy continues to be squeezed by sanctions and we have ourselves the gradual development of destabilising strategic nuclear postures. This is a risky, and potentially combustible, mix. The more hold the nuclear dimension has on US-North Korean relations, the more Pyongyang perceives regime change, not nuclear security, to be at the centre of Washington’s policy. So, at the core the approach of the hawks, like John Bolton, is a type of denuclearisation where considerations of power, not nuclear security, drive policy.

The real lesson for this week, then, is this. The more we emphasise nuclear disarmament, the less likely we are to see it.

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Three Strikes and You’re Out? North Korea Accuses Trump of Reneging on an Agreement Made at Panmunjom.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has issued a report concluding that malnutrition and disease are both on the rise in North Korea. The news, as usual, garnered little attention in the western media nor also amongst western nuclear analysts. If anything, such news is greeted positively, a sign that sanctions and isolation are having their effects so much so Kim Jong-un may be, finally, compelled to bend the knee before US power. The rising humanitarian crisis is attributed to a combination of volatile weather leading to an alternating pattern of floods and droughts, and lack of access to resources to mitigate their effects on food production and the prevalence of water borne bacteria.

According to the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in North Korea, Mohamed Babiker, cited in the above linked report, “rates of malnutrition and water borne diseases like diarrhea and colitis are on the rise.” In the 2019 United Nations Panel of Experts Report on the implementation of UN sanctions and adherence to UN resolutions with respect to North Korea (pdf, pp360-361) it is stated

“More than 40 per cent of the population (10.3 million people) is undernourished and one in five children is stunted. Over nine million people have limited access to essential health services. A severe shortage of basic drugs persists. Over one-third of household drinking water is contaminated. One in ten children suffers from diarrhea.”

Regarding the relationship between sanctions and the suffering of North Koreans the Panel of Experts Report goes on,

“Paragraph 7 of resolution 2397 (2017) covers several goods which are vital to agriculture or public health programs, including a variety of agricultural machinery and medical equipment (annex 87). Prohibited goods include machinery and parts for food processing factories; pumps, filters, pipes, and drilling equipment necessary to address critical humanitarian needs, such as providing clean water to prevent diarrhea, one of the main killers of children in the DPRK, and food security to reduce high malnutrition rates.”

One of the main killers of children in North Korea, diarrhea, as noted is on the rise. What the Panel of Experts says of the sectoral sanctions is especially pertinent

“The Panel notes that the implementation of sectoral sanctions in particular has had an impact on the activities of international humanitarian agencies working to address chronic humanitarian needs in the country.”

These are the sanctions that Kim Jong-un asked to be suspended at Hanoi in exchange for the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The broad consensus, including nay especially among liberals, is that North Korea asked for too much at Hanoi. Granting North Korea access to resources to prevent the killing of its children through diarrhea would be to allow too much. These are the same people that prance and preen on social and mainstream media regarding Xinjiang. The matter is made worse when one considers that at Hanoi the US insisted upon a formulation (up front complete dismantlement for follow on sanctions suspension) that was unrealistic, and most likely made on the understanding that it would not be acceptable to Pyongyang. What we are talking about here are crimes against humanity.

Recall also that Duyeon Kim and Melissa Hanham at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, following North Korea’s tests of the KN-23 short range ballistic missile but before the Kim-Trump summit at Panmunjom, called for tightening the sanctions noose because “missiles like these will start the war.” That both wrote in a state brimming with “missiles like these will start the war,” and which starts more wars than you and I change jumpers, was neither here nor there. This makes sense on the operative principle of the elite consensus on international relations; only the United States is permitted interests, smaller states are permitted nothing bar obligations.

The Japan Times carried a report claiming that Kim Jong-un stated to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in recent summitry that he seeks security guarantees from Trump, rather than sanctions relief, in exchange for denuclearisation. The Japan Times has proven to be an unreliable source at times, and this report should be treated with scepticism. Pyongyang has a security guarantee, that being a hydrogen bomb able to destroy American cities when delivered by the Hwasong-15 ICBM.

That point is not unrelated to the news item that dominated the week on nuclear North Korea. The North Korean news agency, KCNA, carried a report citing remarks from a North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson alleging that Washington had violated an agreement made between Kim and President Trump at their third meeting in Panmunjom. Essentially, Pyongyang claims that Trump stated to Kim that he would suspend upcoming joint military exercises with South Korea

“The United States and south Korea are going to defiantly conduct a joint military exercise “Alliance 19-2” targeting us in August…(snip)… The suspension of joint military exercises is what President Trump, commander-in-chief of the U.S., personally committed to at the DPRK-U.S. summit talks in Singapore under the eyes of the whole world and reaffirmed at the DPRK-U.S. summit meeting in Panmunjom, where our Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State were also present.”

In other words, security guarantees from Trump wouldn’t be worth the paper they’re written on. If what the North Koreans are saying is true, i.e. that Trump agreed to suspend the Alliance 19-2 exercises, but those exercises are going ahead anyway, that would be the third time the Trump administration has misrepresented the nature of Trump’s direct interactions with Kim. At the first summit in Singapore it appears that Trump had promised to issue a joint declaration, with Seoul and Pyongyang, on the end of the Korean War in exchange for Kim’s dismantling of the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) facility for testing large liquid propelled missile and rocket engines. The suspension of US-ROK military exercises appears to have been in response to North Korea’s prior suspension of nuclear and ICBM testing. At Hanoi, immediately after the collapse of the summit, both Mike Pompeo and President Trump misrepresented to the world’s media what had transpired. It was the North Koreans in hastily, and unprecedentedly, organised press conferences who called them out on that. It is conceded by most serious analysts that North Korea’s account of the proceedings was more credible than Trump and Pompeo’s.

And now we have this after Panmunjom.  Could it be three strikes and you’re out? Notice what the KCNA report states here

“Our discontinuation of the nuclear and ICBM tests and the U.S. suspension of joint military exercises are, to all its intents and purposes, commitments made to improve bilateral relations…(snip)… With the U.S. unilaterally reneging on its commitments, we are gradually losing our justifications to follow through on the commitments we made with the U.S. as well.”

Should North Korea lift its suspension of nuclear and ICBM testing we would, most likely, head back to the fraught nuclear standoff of 2017. The reference to reversing the suspension of nuclear and missile testing is supportive of the notion that they’re linked to the suspension of military exercises pledge at Singapore. Tit-for-tat has been North Korea’s nuclear MO since the early 1990s. Notice that the statement carries an implicit admission, not picked up by analysts and commentators. That is, North Korea implicitly concedes that its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri was not dismantled. A July 19 analysis, at 38North, based on the latest publicly available satellite imagery, of the Punggye-ri test site indicates no change in its status, however it continues to be well maintained. North Korea, like Washington, has publicly over sold the true meaning of its actions.

Now Mike Pompeo is reported as denying that Washington is violating a commitment made at the third summit at Panmunjom

“I saw those comments,” Pompeo said. “I think we’re doing exactly what President Trump promised Chairman Kim we would do with respect to those exercises.”

At the very least these remarks suggest that Trump did promise Kim something at Panmunjom, a concession many commentators have missed. As noted above, thus far, Trump administration characterisations of Kim-Trump meetings have lacked credibility. A subsequent KCNA report citing an MFA spokesperson stated that Pyongyang is considering whether to go ahead with working level meetings with US officials on denuclearisation, the main tangible outcome of the Panmunjom summit. Pompeo himself conceded he doesn’t know whether they will go ahead.

When the third summit went down, I was actually talking with some nice cows at The Potato Shed I do confess. Although in my defence, if the charge of bullshit sticks, that was kind of appropriate.  In a post hot on the heels of the third summit I stated that my initial impression was that Kim allowed Trump to make him look like an exotic idiot. That impression might yet prove a prescient one. Certainly, it makes sense that Kim would have wanted to extract some concession to save face. Many condemned the summit as a public relations farce, yet others praised it as the dawn of a new era. Both reactions are bad ones. My view on all this has long been that the future is best influenced than predicted. We should be, as citizens in liberal democratic societies, using the means available to us through dissidence and action to pressure our governments to adopt a just and rational stance. The impulse of those who support peace on the Korean peninsula should not be to pat Trump on his orange palette when he talks with Kim but rather work to make sure there’s proper follow through. Not many are doing this.

Finally, the Iran nuclear file is not irrelevant here and that for all sorts of reasons. Let us take the latest developments. The United Kingdom seized an Iranian cargo vessel, likely a show of loyalty following the imbroglio over the UK ambassador’s cable on the Trump White House, the US shot down an Iranian drone (not long after Iran’s shooting down of a US drone), and (likely retaliatory) Iran seized a UK cargo vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. Earlier in the year, when Iran attempted two satellite launches from its Semnan space launch centre, Pompeo, in a bizarrely worded press release, spoke of “restoring deterrence” against Iran. Yet, clearly, the dilemmas of deterrence exist on the Iranian side. How might Tehran deter the US? It’s possible to interpret the Iranian counter seizure of a UK vessel in the context of “restoring deterrence.” Two states overly concerned with “restoring deterrence” might lead to the very outcome  supposedly being deterred against, a good indication of an inherent irrationality at work.

Now, consider the following remark in the KCNA report on the Alliance 19-2 exercises with South Korea

“We really have many things to say about the facts that the U.S., together with Japan, south Korea and other countries, staged the “Proliferation Security Initiative” exercise targeting our country in early July and continues to bring highly sophisticated war equipment into south Korea.”

What if, in future should denuclearisation diplomacy fail, North Korea would take umbrage to the seizure of a North Korean vessel under the PSI or in enforcement of sanctions? That is, what would happen should nuclear North Korea, just like Iran, seek to “restore deterrence” through counter seizures?

Like I said, the future is better influenced than predicted.

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Yongbyon Dismantlement for Snapback Sanctions Relief: Deal or No Deal?

Reports continue to emphasise that the upcoming working level meetings between US and North Korean officials, following the third Kim-Trump meeting at Panmunjom, will discuss an interim Yongbyon plus deal involving what’s called a “nuclear freeze” for limited sanctions relief. It was The New York Times, we might recall, that let the cat out of the bag on that much to the chagrin of John Bolton. The timing and the venue of the working level meetings have not been set, however assuming the reports are accurately representing what Washington will offer Pyongyang we should lower expectations about a significant breakthrough (at least initially).

Yonhap News Agency has the latest report on this, and it’s pretty interesting. Washington is asking for the dismantlement of Yongbyon and a “freeze” on North Korea’s entire nuclear programme in exchange for the suspension of coal and textile sanctions, and moreover those sanctions would be snapback sanctions which stands to reason given the emphasis on suspension. North Korea is being asked to dismantle its entire Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for partial sanctions suspension. You only need to think of Iran’s experience with the JCPOA to see why that would be deeply problematical for Pyongyang. Furthermore, the verification regime accompanying the freeze is not clear. One assumes it would involve on the ground verification following a declaration of all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, including the ICBM production facility at Sanumdong in addition to the reported clandestine enrichment plant/s. Such a regime would not technically be necessary, but it is doubtful that Washington would settle for less. The snapbackable nature of the sanctions relief would act as leverage encouraging compliance with a potentially stringent verification regime. I don’t see this bird flying.

North Korea is being asked to offer more than what it offered at Hanoi, but it would not get anything extra in return.  One can see why that might be the case. Even as the United States, Athens, moves (apparently) closer to the North Korean conception of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, i.e. a gradual and reciprocal step-by-step process involving more than just North Korea’s nuclear forces, it is important that North Korea, Melos, be seen to be caving to US demands. Opposition from liberal and neoconservative quarters to this following the Kim-Trump meeting at the DMZ isn’t about the tacit recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, rather it is about the credibility of US power. Melos is supposed to move to Athens’ position, not the other way around. The Trump-Pompeo-Biegun position on Yongbyon dismantlement plus a freeze, it seems to me, reflects and seeks to address those concerns. Whatever the modalities, I’d argue the key aspect to the Yonhap report is usage of “beginning” and “process.” That means Washington is moving toward Pyongyang’s “method of calculation” to quote the North Koreans at Hanoi. If true, that’s an important step in the right direction and the purpose of working level meetings, whatever the initial positions of the two parties are concerned, is to work toward a common position through the give and take of diplomacy. That’ll have to happen as I doubt that Pyongyang will buy Yongbyon+ for the price offered.

  • United States Military Forces Korea [PDF] has published its 2019 Strategic Digest. It makes a noteworthy contrast between the Hwasong-14 ICBM and the Hwasong-15 ICBM. It states that the Hwasong-14 is “capable of reaching most of the United States.” Of the Hwasong-15 it states that it’s “capable of striking any part of the United States.” The emphasis is in the original. What I’d emphasis is the “reaching” for the HS-14 and the “striking” for the HS-15. That suggests that US military forces in South Korea assesses that the HS-15 has a functional Reentry Vehicle whereas the HS-14 does not. I suspect this is related to the kerfuffle over a video from Japanese TV news reportedly depicting the reentry of the Hwasong-14 (July 28, 2017 test) which some analysts, notably Michael Elleman, claim demonstrated that the RV burnt up. David Wright, Jeffrey Lewis, and James Acton had an impressive analysis suggesting otherwise.
  • Markus Schiller has a paper published at Science and Global Security on North Korea’s missile development. I have yet to read the paper, but the abstract suggests that the paper is devoted to arguing North Korea’s post 2012 missile programme depended upon foreign assistance and foreign procurement. This is doubtless related to Schiller’s pre 2017 “bluff hypothesis” where he characterised North Korea’s missile programme as basically a bluff to leverage better relations with Washington. Well, the bluff hypothesis didn’t survive reentry into 2017. So, I suspect that Schiller is trying to explain why his characterisation of North Korea’s missile programme was a mischaracterisation. He was wrong then, and he’s wrong now because North Korea’s programme largely arose through indigenous research and development.
  • The North Korean Institute for American Studies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a blistering attack, carried by KCNA, on South Korea on account of the delivery of two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters from the United States. This follows deliver of F-35A’s in March. The F-35A is envisaged to play an important role in South Korea’s preemptive decapitation strategy known as “kill chain,” and the IAS statement alludes to this when it says the F-35A is for “opening a ‘gate’ to invading the north in time of emergency on the Korean peninsula.” In other words, “aircraft like these will start the war.” Note in the 2019 Strategic Digest it states that the US and South Korea are pursuing joint technological developments “the more technologically advanced under co-development include…Weapons of Mass Destruction Elimination in Underground Facilities.” The North Korean statement includes this little line; “We, on our part, have no other choice but to develop and test the special armaments to completely destroy the lethal weapons reinforced in south Korea.” The arms race continues.
  • Speaking of the 2019 Strategic Digest there’s a good map of the deployment pattern of the Korean Peoples Army at page 47. As the report states 70% of the KPA is deployed near the DMZ (to make it harder for the US-ROK to manoeuvre and encircle not necessarily to invade as commonly claimed) but look at the military assets associated with the motor rifle corps to the north of Pyongyang. Note the two axes. That’s interesting with respect to the reported flanking aspects of the Pentagon’s OPLAN-5015 which some have characterised as the “secret plan to destroy North Korea” in event of war or better still a severe crisis given that OPLAN-5015, reportedly, envisages preemptive strikes. It’s reported that beyond pre-emption OPLAN-5015, like its predecessor OPLAN-5027, plans to pincer Pyongyang through armour and mechanised infantry attacks from the south, east and possibly west following an Inchon style amphibious landing. Notice also how public support, according to the Strategic Digest, for the deployment of US forces in South Korea significantly declines should a joint declaration on the end of the Korean War be issued. Presumably that would decline even further should a formal peace treaty be agreed to. Previously, the United States has rejected, after Trump appears to have agreed to it at Singapore, a “declaration for declaration” interim deal involving Pyongyang declaring all its nuclear related facilities and assets in exchange for a joint declaration (but not formal treaty) on the end of the Korean War. One can see why.
  • The developing crisis in the Persian Gulf following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, as we’ve already seen, is not unrelated to all this. The big news this week was Iran’s announcement that it will enrich up to 5% U-235, above the JCPOA limit of 3.7% U-235 and possibly even to 20% U-235 in the near future (for producing medical isotopes.) This has been characterised by the Trump administration and its acolytes as Iran hurtling to the bomb. One can see, by contrast, that it is a calibrated response to garner leverage, especially with respect to the Europeans who have pledged to compensate Iran for the losses it has occurred on account of US sanctions. The Europeans have set a redline regarding how far Iran can go as it leverages its enrichment activities. The Iranians have been told they are not to feed UF-6 feedstock into all 33 of its advanced IR-6 centrifuges. We hear a lot about breakout scenarios, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is the possibility, precisely because of Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and associated actions, that Iran will develop a clandestine enrichment plant (or plants) with its advanced centrifuges at the centrepiece of a military fuel cycle. The Iranians have been caught twice on this, but that was in the days well before the IR-6 which would enable smaller and more concealable facilities. Thus far we are tit-for-tatting our way to an Iranian bomb as we did with North Korea (a point long emphasised here). The thing is that Iran might develop its own version of the Byungjin line policy. A civil nuclear energy programme for the economic development of Iran (if not the development of Iran tout court), Tehran might calculate, requires a nuclear deterrent functioning as a shield behind which its vulnerable civilian nuclear assets sit behind.
  • There’s an amazing short documentary composed of footage shot at Chernobyl in 1986 depicting the frantic efforts of the team to contain the immediate consequences of the nuclear reactor accident. It’s called Chernobyl 3828. At 23mins 56sec the liquidators, soldiers tasked with cleaning the top of the building of highly radioactive debris including from the core of the reactor, are thanked for their heroic service. They respond; “I serve the Soviet Union.”
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