Riding the Escalation Ladder with North Korea Risks Intentional Nuclear War

When we speak of the possibility for the nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States to escalate, we tend to do so in the future tense. But we should recognise that we are already riding the escalation ladder, that we appear to have started that climb prior to the failure of the Hanoi summit, and that now would be a good time to get off that ladder lest the bombs that shine like a thousand suns pierce our skies.

Donald Trump’s announcement that he will reverse new “large scale” economic sanctions on North Korea seems to suggest that he has taken a step off that ladder, but that appearance is misleading for Trump has decided not to climb the next rung, for now, rather than to take a step off the rung our feet are already firmly emplaced on. We should understand that where we stand on the escalation ladder this weekend is actually higher than last weekend. Trump’s announcement means we won’t have made a quantum leap higher by the end of next weekend. What’s especially alarming about Trump’s announcement is the degree to which, as their reaction to it shows, liberal and neoconservative opinion is willing to escalate the conflict with nuclear armed North Korea. That hasn’t been the focus of commentary and analysis, but it should be.

Various US actions and statements since Hanoi support my previous contention that a critical aspect to the standoff can be found in the Melian dialogue. Recall that this was a “dialogue” between mighty Athens and puny Melos. The Athenians advised the Milesians to “get what they can get.” What we are witnessing with North Korea is a situation new to political history. It’s that simple, and that grand. Melos now can wipe out millions of Athenians, and the rational thing is for Athens to settle with Melos by getting what it can get. But like in the original version, the rational choice is being ignored. That’s because, for Washington, a key consideration is the maintenance of its credibility as a hegemonic power. Mighty Athens cannot, and cannot be seen, to settle on equal terms with Melos.

For example, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has in media interviews reiterated the so called “Libya model” whereby North Korea dismantles its “weapons of mass destruction,” so not just nuclear, and associated research, development, production, and deployment facilities. In return for this prior act the United States would end what North Korea has called its “hostile policy” including repealing economic sanctions and supporting its further integration into the international community and the Northeast Asian political economy.

In other words, North Korea must first irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons and nuclear complex and only then would the United States reversibly repeal economic sanctions and reversibly end its “hostile policy.” That is what is due hegemonic power. Stephen Biegun, the US special envoy for North Korea, in remarks earlier this month to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, repeated and reaffirmed that formula. The demand is for North Korea to accede to US terms, and what’s just as important be seen by the rest of the world as submitting to Washington’s demands. North Korea, as it has throughout the denuclearisation talks, by contrast calls for a reciprocal step by step process of détente more befitting two equal powers.

When presented thus one can see how the dynamic is redolent of the Melian dialogue, only with a twist occasioned by North Korea’s ability to wipe out major US cities with the hydrogen bomb. The Athenians stated to the Milesians that questions of right only apply to states of equal power. Pyongyang’s view is its possession of thermonuclear weapons gives it that status.

A key question here is the degree to which this revival of the Libya model postdates Hanoi. The tenor of the discussion in most outlets is that it became policy once again following the fizzle at Hanoi. That is, the US offered North Korea a grand bargain of dismantlement for sanctions repeal even support for “prosperity.” Both were to occur at the same time. The evidence to support this assumption, however, is thin and there exists some reason to question it. For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken of differences over “sequencing” as being a significant problem at Hanoi. This he did at Hanoi itself in his press conference with Trump and in subsequent interviews. That, seemingly, suggests the US demands, and moreover demanded, North Korea move first and only then would the US reciprocate. Which is pretty much the Libya model. One doesn’t need to examine the entire history of US-North Korea nuclear diplomacy to see that such a position is not credible. For example, at Singapore the US, in the negotiating sessions, appears to have pledged to sign on to a declaration on the end of the Korean War in exchange for the dismantling of the facility at Sohae for hot testing large liquid propelled missile and rocket engines. Certainly, the US did not deliver on any such apparent arrangement.

As we know North Korea, as revealed by satellite imagery, appears to be preparing for a satellite launch from the Sohae facility which also doubles as a space launch complex. The earliest satellite images showing reassembly activity at Sohae publicly available date from February 22, i.e. before the Hanoi summit. That’s the same day that North Korea’s embassy in Spain was sacked by a mysterious dissident group calling itself the “Chollima Civil Defence.” Initial reports suggested CIA involvement, and Andrei Lankov in an interesting analysis, to date the best available, tentatively suggests that is likely. I am in no position to adjudicate, so will not speculate, however one aspect has been neglected in commentary. Namely, what is just as important, perhaps even more important, is what the perception of the North Koreans themselves are. Unless the state security services are in possession of their own information revealing the source of, and motives for, the embassy attack one thinks the North Koreans would take the incident to be US directed and inspired.

Both at Hanoi itself and subsequently North Korean officials have expressed the view that the offer Kim Jong-un made there, Yongbyon dismantlement for partial (post 2016) economic sanctions relief is as good as it gets, certainly now and most likely for a very long time if not indefinitely. Furthermore, they have suggested that Kim may call off the denuclearisation talks altogether in the absence of further progress. The declared stances of the two sides have hardened.

This is where the business of Trump’s sanctions reversal enters the picture. Earlier this week the US placed financial sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies doing business with North Korea. Those secondary financial sanctions, given the centrality of the US in the global financial system, are a serious matter for the companies affected and the situation is not dissimilar to the type of secondary sanctions the US has placed on foreign corporations doing business with Iran after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. They are a message to all the companies that might be doing business with North Korea just as their Iranian counterparts are a message to all companies doing business with Iran. That means they have effects extending beyond their immediate targets.

The scale of the sanctions may seem like a trifling but taking them as such would be a mistake. For example, during the Bush administration, the freezing of North Korean accounts deposited in Banco Delta Asia on, what turned out be false, counterfeiting allegations immediately after a denuclearisation agreement was reached promptly scuttled that agreement. In fact, the end of that six party agreement was followed not long thereafter by North Korea’s first nuclear test. That’s because North Korea saw the sanctions as a continuance of Washington’s “hostile policy.” The sum involved was a mere $24 million dollars. Actions such as these North Korea considers contrary to the first article of the Singapore Declaration, which calls for both parties to end hostile policies pursued against the other. Therefore, for Pyongyang, the United States in placing these secondary financial sanctions on two Chinese companies is in violation of the Singapore Declaration.

North Korea, it has just been reported, has announced that it is withdrawing from a joint liaison office, involved in implementing inter Korean economic projects, agreed with South Korea. That means the US stance on all or nothing denuclearisation is effectively blocking inter Korean détente and rapprochement. The multilateral basis of the sanctions, the requirement for US approval for their repeal, and the leverage gained because of the special role the US economy plays in the global economy, all means that peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot come without Washington’s support and encouragement. But the US is playing spoiler and that, to no small degree, is because of its need to be perceived and respected as the world’s hegemonic power. The are two ways Washington can do this. The first is by inducing Pyongyang to accept US terms. The second is by showing the world that it remains “the indispensable nation” without which nothing of consequence can be done. The requirement to maintain the credibility of US power and prestige is blocking progress toward the unification of Korea, and surely the Korean nation will never forget, if not forgive, Washington this.

Now the economic sanctions that Trump tweeted he will not implement are not these sanctions. Rather Trump is referring to additional “large scale” sanctions the US Treasury was to announce next week on top of the existing “maximum pressure” sanctions already in place. Prior to the Singapore Summit the Trump administration was set to extend the maximum pressure sanctions on North Korea, but Washington forwent their implementation as the Singapore process developed. It appears that those sanctions were set to be revived. It is these sanctions, not the secondary sanctions, that Trump stated he won’t implement. For now, that is. Speculation is rife as to the reasons for this. Perhaps Trump wants to induce Kim back to the negotiating table. Perhaps he got wind of a plan to implement additional sanctions without his approval, say by administration hard liners like Bolton, and put a stop to them when he became aware of them. Perhaps it’s further sign of an administration divided over North Korea policy. Perhaps Trump is playing a good cop bad cop routine with Bolton as his Dirty Harry. The escalation with North Korea has happened, witness the sanctions on the two Chinese entities, however the step taken, thus far, has not been as bad as that planned. Not a great reason for joy.

I’m a little bit more interested in something other than what all this means about the Trump White House, something I would regard as being more concerning than much of the above. Most liberal, but also neoconservative, opinion has lampooned Trump for shelving the planned “large scale” sanctions. Democrat legislators, liberal news reports, liberal and conservative commentators and analysts, have all widely expressed the position that Trump foolishly, as only he can, shelved those plans thus damaging US foreign policy. That’s just another way of saying the sanctions should proceed, that another (big) step on the escalation ladder with North Korea ought to be climbed. The gist of the position, and the argument underpinning it, is well encapsulated in a report by NBC News

National security analysts said pulling back on North Korea sanctions is particularly perplexing given that the economic pressure campaign is the element of Trump’s approach that has actually worked, bringing Kim to the table twice for unprecedented talks with a U.S. president.

The position appears to be; it was maximum pressure sanctions that brought Kim to the table so extending them will bring him back and make him more likely to agree to US terms. It was not sanctions, however, that brought Kim to the table. Rather, Pyongyang seeks to deepen its relations with the South and so North Korea embarked upon diplomacy with the US on the basis that by doing so it provided Seoul with the necessary political space to embark upon detente. The widespread view that maximum pressure sanctions brought Kim to Singapore is not only false but dangerous as it now encourages their extension.

Sanctions, as we know, are acts of war. North Korea in 2019, as we also know, is facing a food shortage. Almost half the population are undernourished, and food rations in North Korea, given the food shortfall, will reportedly be cut by almost half this year. Squeezing and squeezing some more a hungry society armed with nuclear weapons carries the risk of nuclear war, just as a similar policy with respect to imperial Japan risked war before 1941. That probability was realised when Tokyo rolled the dice on that “day which will live in infamy.” Nuclear conflict, at the very least, is a foreseeable consequence of a policy of graduated strangulation. That means those liberals and neoconservatives that seek the extension of sanctions, and who work to create a political atmosphere pushing toward their adoption, could be said to have intended any nuclear war resulting from them.

The concept intention includes the foreseeable consequences of one’s actions. If one were to run a red light at an intersection knowing that a very real consequence of that action is the striking of another car, and should that transpire, one can be said to have intended striking the car. Such a tragedy would not be considered an accident, rather a criminal act. In Australia culpable driving is defined under the criminal statute, in part, as when a man drives a motor vehicle

recklessly, that is to say, if he consciously and unjustifiably disregards a substantial risk that the death of another person or the infliction of grievous bodily harm upon another person may result from his driving; or negligently, that is to say, if he fails unjustifiably and to a gross degree to observe the standard of care which a reasonable man would have observed in all the circumstances of the case…

A graduated policy of strangulation risks nuclear conflict with North Korea, it is a foreseeable consequence of yet more sanctions, and so should nuclear war befall us its occurrence would fall within the ambit of intention. We are speaking here of potentially genocidal crimes. The cold war has resulted in too much confusion about the prospects of intentional nuclear war. The overwhelming consensus is that the cold war showed intentional nuclear war to be highly unlikely, a remote prospect in a world of rational states. The real danger is of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. For example, glitches in launch on warning systems that are tightly coupled and based on prompt decision cycles might lead to an inadvertent nuclear exchange. The source of the danger here is technological.

However, a reckless policy of brinkmanship that runs the risk of sparking a nuclear war, especially during a crisis, and which subsequently does lead to a nuclear exchange makes that exchange intentional. The resulting nuclear war would not be an accident. It is best regarded as an intentional nuclear war. The cold war gave us quite a few examples of brinkmanship. The universal consensus is wrong. The risk of intentional nuclear war is higher than just about everybody would grant it, and that includes the relatively high risk that both sides to a crisis end up waging a nuclear war that can be characterised as an intentional act for both.

These considerations don’t just apply to the United States. They also apply to North Korea. Pyongyang is no shrinking violet when it comes to brinkmanship. The current dynamic might, without sober heads prevailing, end up as I had argued was possible in an article published by Pursuit at the University of Melbourne.  In that article, written just before Pyongyang tested a hydrogen bomb, I argued that North Korea has an incentive to ease sanctions through manipulating external perceptions of risk, what Thomas Schelling in his classical writings on deterrence theory called “the threat that leaves something to chance.” Just as we think maximum pressure brought Kim to Singapore, so they think that the hydrogen bomb sitting atop a Hwasong-15 ICBM brought Trump to Singapore. They’re wrong, of course, but it’s the perception that counts here. Should the US continue to strangle North Korea, and block meaningful progress on inter Korean rapprochement, North Korea has an incentive to pose “the threat that leaves something to chance.” Stephen Biegun, obviously drawing from neoclassical economic theory, said as much in his Carnegie address

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

Going by Biegun’s reckoning Washington appears as if it will stick to the hard line. The incentive is not for rational Kim to accede to US terms, the Libya model is far too an irrational option, but rather to raise the marginal benefit of partial denuclearisation for the United States by raising the marginal costs, through “the threat that leaves something to chance,” of the current US approach. Even though, one might argue, the rational thing would be for North Korea, should US intransigence continue, to isolate the United States through the deepening of its regional diplomatic outreach. That appears to be the Iranian response to Trump, but North Korea appears to march to a different beat. Teheran might yet learn that the Pyongyang approach is more reasoned if only because Iran’s approach requires the cooperation of other powers too ready to cower before the wrath of the boss in Washington.

As I have written here before Washington, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, consciously ran a risk of nuclear war that JFK perceived to be “one third to even.” The crux of the issue then was the power and prestige of the United States, as it is now. Those liberals and neoconservatives that have castigated Trump for withdrawing from the “large scale” new sanctions are demonstrating the degree to which they are prepared to run the risk of nuclear war when the power and prestige of Washington is on the line. The same applies to North Korea. To safeguard the survival of the state and the highly authoritarian nature of the regime Pyongyang too is willing to run the risk of nuclear war. It is not just the United States that is in possession of a Libya model. So is North Korea. I have long noticed the degree to which Pyongyang’s media outlets reference Syria. This might be construed as Kim’s way of saying, if necessary, he too will go down swinging like Gaddafi and Assad only he can butcher more than just his own fellow countrymen.

Scott Sagan, in 2017 at the height of missile mania, called the standoff the Korean missile crisis in obvious reference to the Cuban variety. Noam Chomsky dismissed this at the time, but I think he was wrong to do so. Sagan’s conclusion was correct, but his reasons were faulty. The essence of the comparison lies in the willingness to risk all when state power and prestige is on the line and the element of the quarantine. North Korea is not like the Soviet Union, but it is like Cuba.

For reasons of state the nuclear standoff is rational even though for all of us, including your regular North Korean, it is highly irrational. We are at once reminded of the words of Mikhail Bakunin

This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries — statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors — if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labour or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”

For reasons of state might yet prove to be the epitaph written upon the tomb of humanity.

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North Korea’s Reassembly Activity at the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility

The week since the collapse of the Hanoi summit has been dominated by news that North Korea is reassembling the facilities it had made progress toward disassembling at the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) satellite launch facility after the first Kim-Trump summit at Singapore. On top of that news came of transport service vehicles being seen operating at the Sanumdong Missile/Rocket Research and Development Facility where North Korea manufactures its long range missiles and space launch vehicles.

At Sohae what is at issue is reassembly activity at the satellite launch pad and the engine test stand. The latter has been used for static hot testing large liquid propelled engines, including the indigenously developed booster engine of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs.

What does this all mean?

We first heard of this courtesy of South Korean media reports of an intelligence assessment made for a parliamentary intelligence committee by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. That report focused on reassembly activity at the launch pad, which mostly was said to consist of reassembly of the roof and door of the rail mounted transfer facility. That is where a space launch vehicle is finally, vertically, assembled and transferred to the launch tower.

Subsequent analysis of public satellite imagery by US analysts confirmed this, but they also showed reassembly activity at the engine test stand as well. 38North has the best analysis here and here. That analysis shows that the rail transfer building has been reassembled as of March 06 and moved adjacent to the main processing building. Beyond Parallel at CSIS had a briefer, high image to text ratio, large font analysis here. That was doubtless Victor Cha continuing his conversation with Donald Trump, given Cha’s recent admission that Beyond Parallel’s report on the Sakkanmol missile operating base came with big pics and little text because Donald Trump doesn’t read. Both he and John Bolton have continued their peace scuttling ways from the Bush administration.

The satellite imagery shows that North Korea had started reassembly at Sohae just before the Hanoi summit. Just what was and wasn’t started prior to Hanoi isn’t clear to me. Did work commence on both the launch pad and the engine test stand prior to Hanoi or did it commence at one of those prior to Hanoi and if so which?

The western airwaves were naturally full of talk about North Korea resuming ICBM testing, even though the Sohae launch pad has only ever been used for launching space launch vehicles. Then the narrative quickly changed to the tried and tested North Korean satellite launches are thinly disguised ICBM tests. Reports of transport service activity at the Sanumdong Research and Development Facility, where North Korea has manufactured both long range missiles and Unha space launch vehicles as noted, added further grist to the mill. That activity was instantly interpreted as being ICBM related, however Sanumdong’s role in Pyongyang’s space programme was largely ignored. Furthermore, North Korea’s space launch vehicles do not share a design heritage with North Korea’s long range missiles. The Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and Hwasong-15 ballistic missiles are not related to the Unha space launch vehicles. The latter have been based on Scud/Nodong technology hence the old Taepodong 1 and 2 rockets.

In late 2017 a Russian space analyst, Khrustalev Vladimir, wrote a brief write up of a visit he paid to North Korea’s space agency. Vladimir stated that North Korea was ready to launch two new satellites. One a 100kg plus Earth remote exploration satellite to low earth orbit, the other a 1000kg plus (likely up to 1500kg) communication satellite to geostationary orbit. North Korea was founded on the 9th of September 1948, which meant North Korea marked its 70th birthday on September 9, 2018. It was argued by some, certainly by me, at the time of the Vladimir report that North Korea might mark the occasion through a space launch (or two). However, inter-Korean détente and the subsequent denuclearisation talks with the US gave North Korea an incentive to put any space launch plans on a holding pattern. That suggests North Korea’s space agency was technically capable of launching the satellites mentioned above but was placed on a hold for political reasons.

Perhaps the countdown has now resumed, and Kim has given a go for launch. The LEO satellite, one thinks, would be launched by the Unha-3 space launch vehicle if so. The GTO satellite, however, would require a new more powerful booster rocket. Quite what that would be is not known. It might be, in part, based on the Hwasong-15 ICBM. Reassembly of the engine test stand at Sohae could mean North Korea might test a new large booster engine for a new space launch rocket or a cluster of Hwasong-15 ICBM engines. Perhaps North Korea would limit itself to launching the LEO payload from an Unha-3. We simply do not have enough information to be certain. We also don’t really know whether North Korea has really set in motion activity related to a coming satellite launch either for that matter.

We must wait and see.

At Singapore, as I have often argued, North Korea agreed, in part, to disassemble the engine test stand at Sohae in exchange for a declaration on the end of the Korean War (as opposed to a formal peace treaty). The United States has never delivered on its end of that bargain. North Korea after Singapore began to disassemble the engine test facility making rapid and significant progress, however it halted that activity in August 2018. In addition to beginning to disassemble the engine test stand North Korea also took off the roof and door from the rail transfer facility at the launch pad. That was largely interpreted as a transparency measure helping to foreclose the usual space launch is a disguised ICBM test argument being made in the event of a future satellite launch. Assuming that to be so, and if reassembly of the engine test stand and the rail mounted transfer facility both began prior to Hanoi, that suggests an end of war declaration was not on the Hanoi agenda. We know that Hanoi was dominated by Yongbyon and sanctions relief.

As a side note, you will notice that the South Korean intelligence assessment reportedly concluded that the Yongbyon plutonium production reactor stopped operations in December 2018. That’s consistent with a recent IAEA conclusion as well, and doubtless Hanoi related.

We might have ourselves here a bit of the usual tit-for-tat, North Korea’s long standing negotiating strategy. No declaration on the end of the Korean War, so Sohae is back in business. If so notice that would follow because Washington is seen by Pyongyang as not fulfilling its end of the Singapore bargain. There’s a sense in which this story transcends Sohae, for it reinforces the incentive for North Korea to hedge on any of its denuclearisation activities. That hedging would be, indeed is, reflected by their reversible nature. It would be irrational for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile related facilities, in whole or in part, in an irreversible fashion and Singapore and Hanoi have only served to reinforce this point upon Pyongyang. North Korea won’t be making a fell swoop disarmament deal with the United States that is complete and reversible.

Should North Korea conduct a space launch from Sohae it would be widely reported as being “provocative” and a “signal” to Donald Trump. I would suggest that it would be more about North Korea going ahead with its preplanned space programme. It would be, more than anything else, Pyongyang not allowing progress on its space objectives being made contingent upon the whims of Donald Trump. But a North Korean space launch would be politically interesting given the way the Trump administration has responded to Iran’s space launch programme, seeing it also in terms of thinly disguised ICBM testing.

Hopefully, we do not end up finding ourselves stepping on the first rung of the escalation ladder. As I have argued here a while back now, both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump appear to hold dangerous views. Kim seems to think his hydrogen bomb and his Hwasong-15 brought Trump to Singapore. For his part Trump seems to think his rendition of the madman theory of Richard Nixon brought Kim to Singapore. I believe both views to be false, but it’s not hard to see how, after Hanoi, they can easily become dangerous ones if acted upon.

The other interesting thing about these post Hanoi developments is the way they have reignited the supposition that North Korea does not have an ICBM able to reliably strike the continental United States with a thermonuclear warhead. A space launch could be a disguised ICBM test, we are told, especially if it employs a new more powerful space launch vehicle which could test some of the components of the Hwasong-15 ICBM for reliability purposes or for further ICBM development. What we have here is a further example of how the world’s preeminent power has not accepted the new reality of the nuclear age. The United States does not accept that a poor, hungry, heavily sanctioned country with a low per capita GDP can strike its urban-industrial centres with the hydrogen bomb through dint of its own efforts.

In the wake of the Hanoi fizzle many went back to Kim Jong-un’s 2019 new year address to find clues as to what comes next. The impulse was understandable, but the wrong address was chosen. By looking to the 2019 address we look to see what Kim might do next. Far better to take on board Kim’s 2018 new year address, which gives us a clue as to what we should do next. Kim there stated of the US that “the whole of its mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.”

The rational thing for us is to accept that reality and strike the best deal available, even if its short of disarmament. The irrational thing is to ignore reality through spinning fairy tales that fool only us. We want to be fooled because we want to compel, and be seen to compel, a small power to bend to our will. The old reality, of might makes right, we find both familiar and comforting.

Update: We should not forget, as I did above, that there has been a kind of Korean space race between North and South Korea. The latter on November 28 2018, flight tested its indigenously developed KSLV-2 rocket or space launch vehicle. That flight test employed one KRE-075 liquid propelled booster engine, which has a thrust of 75 tonnes. South Korea plans to launch two satellites in 2021 using the KSLV-2 rocket one of those being a 1500kg satellite to be placed into a low earth orbit. The KSLV-2, when fully operational, will employ a cluster of four KRE-075 engines each with a 75 tonne thrust for the first or booster stage. North Korea’s Hwasong-15 ICBM employs a two cluster Pektusan engine with a total thrust of approximately 80 tonnes. When a single chamber Pektusan engine was used to boost the Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile during its flight testing in 2017 acceleration analysis showed that configuration had a thrust of about 40 tonnes. When the Pektusan engine was static tested (in single chamber form) KCNA stated that it was for Pyongyang’s space programme and had a thrust of 80 tonnes.  As noted above North Korea has had plans to launch a 1000kg plus communication satellite to geostationary orbit, which requires an SLV more powerful than the Unha-3. Th analogy with North Korea and early Chinese SLVs is why I had a reference above to a possible four engine cluster.

Anyway, my main point here is this. The KSLV-2 might be partly related to the performance characteristics that North Korea may be seeking from a new SLV. But even more importantly, North Korea has been in a space race with South Korea and in 2021 Seoul has plans for a big splash in space. Analysis of satellite imagery seems to show there has been, apparently related, activity at Sohae and Sanumdong from February 2019. As noted South Korea flight tested the KSLV-2 in November 2018. By about December 2018 it was clear that the denuclearisation talks with the United States were in troubled waters, which is one of the reasons why the Hanoi summit was called in the first place. Hanoi was Yongbyon focused, and the US still had not meet its Singapore obligation to sign up to a declaration on the end of the Korean War in exchange for the engine test facility at Sohae. The Hanoi summit, as we know, was a fizzle. Why, then, would North Korea give South Korea a free ride in space, knowing that Pyongyang is in the lead as it were, if the main political reason for it doing so, the denuclearisation talks with Washington, were basically going nowhere?

One should be mindful of the Korean space race when thinking about North Korea’s activities at Sohae and Sanumdong. North Korea has preprogrammed space plans which it has placed on hold for political reasons. The longer the hold the more likely the next Korean advance in space comes from the South rather than the North. An indefinite hold that has North Korea’s space programme dance to the tunes of Donald Trump would thereby be irrational.

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Me!2: On the Collapse of the Hanoi Summit.

What to make of the Hanoi fizzle? In seeking to answer that question we should be mindful that the full picture of the Hanoi summit has yet to emerge, but we have a fairly good idea of the broad outlines if not every little pixel. Doubtless the remaining ambiguities will become clearer over the coming days and weeks. I think the fizzle has potentially ominous implications that go well beyond the Korean peninsula.

In the lead up to Hanoi I wrote an article arguing that we appeared to be heading toward a fizzle. That article gets more age worthy with every passing day.

But well before, in 2017, I had argued what happened in that year represented an important, historical, sea change in international relations. North Korea is a small, poor, country. It has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the world. Yet in 2017 it successfully acquired the hydrogen bomb and the ability to deliver it to the contiguous United States. That means North Korea opened a type of “window of vulnerability” made possible by an ICBM with the range and throw weight to target America with high yield two stage thermonuclear warheads.  

Since the heyday of Ancient Athens much about social and economic life has changed. Rome came and went. Feudalism came and went. Royal absolutism came and went. The silk road came and went. All that stuff, and more. But throughout history the essentials of international relations remained as depicted by Thucydides in the Melian dialogue. Hitherto the problem of Melos has arisen when a small state, to the detriment and suffering of its people, came to think it could resist Athens. History is littered with examples for the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. The Milesians put their trust in the gods after Athens demanded its incorporation into the Athenian empire as a vassal state whom it could exploit and profit from. We know what happened next.  In the modern era those gods were democracy, liberalism, international law, socialism, internationalism, all those nice things. The Milesians of the world have fought valiantly but died all the same. Hanoi serves as a reminder of this.

The dialogue between the United States and North Korea is comparable to the dialogue between Athens and Melos in that America is mighty and North Korea is puny. But only now Melos has the hydrogen bomb. Yet the United States wants to negotiate with North Korea as if it were the Melos of yesteryear. Where heretofore it had been Melos that ignored the laws of political gravitation now it is Athens that ignores the new reality. When Melos doesn’t accept reality it’s the Milesians that suffer, but when Athens doesn’t accept reality, we’re all fucked. That, I submit, is what Hanoi showed. In a way that should not surprise us, for escalation dominance, first strike counterforce, missile defence, space weapons all show that Athens hasn’t fully accepted the reality of a world where Sparta has the bomb much less Melos.

The United States refuses to accept that the world has changed. States like North Korea can acquire the ability to destroy much of the urban-industrial infrastructure that underpins US society if they want to. The year 2017 demonstrated this. The problem was foreseen during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the most important conflict since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in part because it was then that nuclear and missile proliferation became a cottage industry in Athens and central to discourse on strategic affairs in the Agora. The idea being to keep Milesian hands off the bomb.  Rather than accepting reality, that Melos has the bomb and this carries consequences, Americans show a ready propensity to believe comforting falsehoods, such as North Korea has yet to acquire a functioning reentry vehicle, that it has relied upon stolen technology rather than its own science and industry, offensive counterproliferation provides preemptive strike capabilities, and missile defences can save the day if worse comes to worse.

Another comforting falsehood is what I have repeatedly referred to as the nuclear obsession underpinning the US-North Korea peace talks. Here the United States has largely adhered to an old concept from previous administrations, namely complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement or CVID. That’s now dressed up as FFVD (final, fully verified denuclearisation) but it’s essentially the same thing. Typically, CVID has been presented as a demand that North Korea needs to fulfil prior to the US even entering negotiations, let alone making concessions. Something Thucydides would have well understood. From Singapore that has been modified to the requirement North Korea completes FFVD and then the US makes significant concessions. Both positions are highly asymmetric, and they essentially follow on from straight power considerations. A great power, let alone the hegemon, is not to engage in a diplomatic process involving equal reciprocation with a small state like North Korea. There’s an important caveat here to which I return.

To understand what happened at Hanoi we need to get a handle on the leadup to the summit. Two factors are of significance here. The first is the widespread reporting of US North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun’s January remarks at Stanford University. Those reports had North Korea offering to go beyond what it pledged at the last inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in at Pyongyang. Namely, dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for suitable, although unspecified, concessions from the United States. It became clear not long thereafter that Pyongyang was offering Yongbyon for sanctions relief. But Biegun and all the post Stanford media reports had North Korea now offering not just Yongbyon but all its fissile material production facilities. As can be seen in my post at the time (linked above) there existed plenty of reasons to doubt this, and good reason to think that Kim’s position at Hanoi would be no different to what he pledged in the Pyongyang Declaration.

So it was.

The second was a two page memo from the North Korean mission to the United Nations circulated to the UN World Food Programme. That memo stated North Korea faces a food production shortfall this year of 1.4 million tonnes and has been compelled to almost halve food rations on account of “high temperatures, drought, floods and United Nations sanctions.” According to the United Nations, “a total of 10.3 million people – almost half the population – are in need and some 41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished.” In 2018 humanitarian aid to North Korea ground to a halt, attributable to the sanctions despite what the relevant UN resolutions might say about their intent. The North Korean memo underscored the importance that Pyongyang attaches to sanctions relief.

Immediately after the collapse of the Hanoi summit President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference where they misrepresented its proceedings, a mischaracterisation widely accepted. That, of course, was somewhat strange given Trump’s ignorance of the very idea of truth which by now is well known. The immediate US position was that Hanoi collapsed because Kim wanted full and complete dismantlement of sanctions in return for the disablement of Yongbyon. But North Korea, unexpectedly and rather unprecedentedly, then hit the air waves calling Trump out on his flagrant lie. North Korea offered Yongbyon in exchange for partial, not complete, sanctions relief. Specifically, North Korea’s call for partial sanctions relief was limited to sanctions that were imposed from 2016 targeting its civilian economy so making the deal offered a very calibrated one. The United States refused to accept this deal. It’s reasonable to infer that the widespread expectation that a successful outcome at Hanoi would involve North Korea fully halting fissile material production played a role here. The Trump-Pompeo press conference alluded to this when Pompeo, in response to questions from David Sanger of The New York Times, stated that if Kim’s offer of Yongbyon for partial sanctions relief was accepted the press corps would have said the deal was a bad one, that Trump was had by Kim and so on. That charge is entirely accurate as can be seen from the post Hanoi media reports which hold that Trump was right to walk from the deal Kim offered. That has fast become almost a consensus opinion.

However, it is not hard to see that Trump’s rejection of the deal was irrational. Accepting the deal on offer would have contributed to further confidence building, hence risk reduction, on the Korean peninsula. Engaging in a step-by-step reciprocal diplomatic process takes the heat and tension out of US-North Korea relations thus lowering the probability of nuclear use. Furthermore, an agreement provides more space for North and South Korea to continue with inter-Korean rapprochement. The Korean War is the source of nuclear danger on the Korean peninsula not the warheads, missiles, and production complex. It surely should be well known by now that North Korea is not going to disarm in one fell swoop, if at all. Why is post 2016 sanctions relief specifically targeting the civilian economy in exchange for the reduction of nuclear danger seen as a “bad” deal? Clearly not on rational security grounds. There are two main reasons, it appears to me.

The first can be found in Trump himself. David Sanger and Edward Wong have an article at The New York Times providing a version of Hanoi that focuses on Trump. Sanger is to be taken with a heavy grain of salt. His articles contain kernels of truth though often are surrounded by falsehoods, and this article is a classic example. The kernel of truth is Trump’s obsession with achieving a grand bargain by dint of his superhuman deal making prowess. Something perhaps Nobel Prize worthy. That fits in with Trump’s only ideological principle; Me! The picture Sanger paints is of Trump, thinking himself the deal maker extraordinaire, offering Kim full sanctions relief in exchange for Kim completely dismantling his nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons infrastructure. Trump is depicted as having hubris enough to think he, and only he, could pull it off to the acclaim and astonishment of world opinion. He even gets to one up the hated Obama one, an added bonus. Perhaps the expectation that Kim would bring to the table more than just Yongbyon fuelled this hubristic expectation on Trump’s part. I rather suspect it did. Notice also the mendacity of the man. Trump immediately attributed the collapse of Singapore to Kim’s demand of full sanctions relief, when in fact it was he, Trump, that offered full sanctions relief. It also demonstrates the degree to which the western media is prepared to accept the claims of a US president, no matter his mendacity, should Washington’s prestige be riding on it.

But that doesn’t explain why much of intellectual and media opinion regards Trump walking away from North Korea’s offer as being rational, when it clearly wasn’t. The real story is here, not in Trump’s vacuous head. It won’t do for Sanger and co to singularly focus on Trump. It seems to me that this puzzle is best viewed through the prism of Thucydides. Athens does not engage in an equal diplomatic process with Melos, even when Melos has the H-bomb because that undermines the power and prestige of the empire. During the Cuban Missile Crisis President Kennedy stated that the odds of nuclear war were “one third to even.” The Cuban Missile Crisis was essentially centred upon the prestige of US power (but also Kennedy’s domestic political prestige) and those high odds of nuclear war were readily accepted when the quarantine was put in place and enforced . The minority position, of General LeMay for instance, was to attack Cuba thus increasing the odds quite appreciably. Whether Kennedy’s odds were objectively true is beside the point (they could quite well have been higher rather than lower). When its power and prestige is at stake Washington D.C. is prepared to run odds of nuclear war it itself regards to be one third to even. That’s irrational, of course, but power always comes before reason. There’s a little paradox about America that lurks here. When much of US society looks at Trump they don’t like what they see. The self before all else, the ignorant narcissism, the hubris of power, the stark hypocrisy, and the like. But this is the thing. When the world looks at America it sees in America what America sees in Trump.  When the power and prestige of Trump is on the line, Trump is prepared to walk no matter how irrational that should be. That we know. But so is the United States, if by United States we take to be intellectual opinion and commentary, and I put to you that is what the widespread positive assessment of the Hanoi walkout shows.

What’s intriguing here is Kim Jong-un’s take on all this. North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui has twice, in an impromptu press conference hot on the heels of the Trump-Pompeo presser, and in an interview for South Korean media outlets, has stated that Kim finds US calculations to be odd. A report by Yonhap News Agency states, “Choe said she also got the impression that Kim feels ‘very odd’ about the way the U.S. calculates the price of the Yongbyon dismantlement.” The North Korean offer, as noted above, was a rational one. The US pockets Yongbyon, with the possibility of more in the future dangled as an implication, in exchange for limited sanctions relief for the civilian economy. We have a curious reversal. It is we that have long held North Korea to be irrational and somewhat odd. Yet here we have North Korea regarding us to be irrational and somewhat odd.

The important caveat to the usual insistence on complete dismantlement, mentioned above, can be found in the Singapore summit. There the United States agreed to a process of denuclearisation involving a reciprocal step-by-step process. We know this because the communique uses the word “denuclearisation,” which implies a process, and furthermore it is explicit to the side agreements reached in the negotiation. We had the North agreeing to refrain from further missile and nuclear testing, shutting down the facility for hot testing large liquid propelled rocket-missile engines at Tongchang-ri, and Washington agreeing to suspend military exercises and pledging to sign up to a declaration on the end of the Korean War. But the United States proceeded to violate that agreement. The declaration did not come, the US suspended military exercises but then reinstituted some of them, in talks between Kim and Pompeo in Pyongyang Pompeo insisted upon CVID or FFVD if you will prior to Washington agreeing to any significant US concessions. The US position at Hanoi was contrary to what was agreed at Singapore. For North Korea Hanoi was about further implementing the process both parties signed up to in Singapore, namely step-by-step confidence building. This can be easily seen through the statements the North Koreans have made after the Hanoi fizzle where they clearly say their Hanoi offer was couched in the reciprocal step-by-step process of denuclearisation agreed to at Singapore. North Korea does not have sufficient confidence in the United States to agree to a deal that has it engaging in irreversible actions while Washington is obligated to engage in reversible actions. Given the history, that too is a reasonable position and one that should have been expected of Pyongyang at Hanoi. Moreover, we don’t know anything about the timing. Do the sanctions go first or does CVID come first? Should it transpire that the latter was to come first, then Hanoi wasn’t a fizzle rather a sick joke. In the Trump-Pompeo press conference timing was cited as an issue, which suggests Hanoi might well have been a joke.

The Singapore summit was the Me! summit. The United States agreed to the step-by-step process, it seems, because Donald Trump needed a document which he could say was made possible by his deal making prowess alone. He couldn’t get upfront disarmament, but he settled for something less lest he walk from Singapore looking like the idiot he is and then proceeded to over sell the agreement even as he was reneging on it. Me! At Hanoi he went for a historical big bang deal to cover himself in glory for time immemorial, and when he couldn’t get his big Tonka toy he sulked off. Me!2. Me, me, me, me. It’s the only thing Trump cares about.

The above considerations focus on rationality, which is the universal concern of analysts and commentators. But the moral domain is wholly neglected. What happened at Hanoi was not only irrational but deeply immoral. As noted just less than half of North Koreans are undernourished, and about half require food aid. This year, as noted, Pyongyang reports there shall be a food shortfall and rations have been by around a half. The regime in North Korea is concerned for its survival, one of the reasons it has developed a nuclear deterrent capability. It is loath to give that guarantee up, certainly not in one irreversible step and that’s quite understandable. The US insisted on irreversible and complete dismantlement at Hanoi, that is CVID, in exchange for lifting all the sanctions. Washington thereby offered Pyongyang a version of the Libya deal offered Gaddafi for complete dismantlement is irreversible yet lifting sanctions is eminently reversible. What else, if anything, Washington offered is not clear. The Hanoi offer was a nonstarter, and it is highly unethical to insist upon an unreasonable negotiating position whilst holding an undernourished population to ransom. Moreover, economic sanctions that target the civilian economy of an undernourished society ruled by a dictatorial elite are in and of themselves intrinsically immoral. The population of North Korea cannot be blamed for the actions of their government and they should not be made accountable for those actions through semi starvation. Furthermore, North Koreans have inalienable human rights that in no way can be made contingent upon what Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump consider to be the proper form of denuclearisation. Anybody that does not understand this, and that includes just about everybody in the mainstream, does not understand, or has no regard, for the concept human rights. Economic sanctions that target the civilian population are one of the more significant human rights violations in North Korea. If you put all this together you come to a startling realisation. Trump is prepared to stroke his own megalomania through the hunger of millions. Me! Washington is prepared to hold fast to the credibility of its power also through the hunger of millions. Me!2.

What happens now? As I have written often here, the future is better influenced than predicted. The future, to no small degree, will depend upon us. Those analysts and commentators that have fallen for the narrative that only Trump can engage in high level diplomacy with North Korea need to acknowledge they have been taken in by a person that is both a conman and a complete idiot. The future of risk reduction and peace on the Korean peninsula, but not just there, lies in the hands of a progressive social movement in the United States. A Bernie Sanders would do more for peace in Korea, and the world, than a Donald Trump. In recognising this one recognises that the future lies in one’s own hands for Bernie Sanders the man and Bernie Sanders the movement are two different though interdependent things. An important political prerequisite for this is our changing the way we think and talk about weird little North Korea. For Washington the nuclear danger North Korea poses is the danger of Melos with the bomb. That’s a problem of power. That’s not the danger America sees, which is more about an irrational state that is beyond deterrence. North Korea’s political system, different to ours but not unfamiliar to us given that we have dealt with national Stalinist states in the past, has little to do with its external behaviour. It was Thucydides, after all, who taught us that there’s no correlation between the internal structure of a state and its external behaviour for Athens and Sparta, radically opposed in constitution, pursued not dissimilar foreign policies. North Korea is a rational actor that can be deterred, and which can and does reach diplomatic agreements of mutual interest.

To rely on a moronic hustler for nuclear risk reduction is the height of folly, and it’s surprising that otherwise savvy analysts should have fallen for the only Trump could go to Pyongyang charade. Their confusion is made by drawing a link between real substantive talks and hot air nonsense. To say that Trump is given to the latter is not an argument against the former, although it is too often taken to be just that.

Donald Trump, and Kim Jong-un via a KCNA statement, have expressed a desire for the peace process to continue. However, it’s hard to see how that can happen unless Washington drops its hard line stance on upfront nuclear dismantlement. Vice Minister Choe has stated that it’s her impression Kim has changed his views about the degree to which the United States is committed to reaching an agreement. She has stated the deal Pyongyang offered at Hanoi is as good as it gets, certainly for now. The Athenian delegation to Melos told the Milesians the rational thing would be for them to get what they can get. The problem at Hanoi was that when Melos has the bomb it suddenly becomes rational for Athens to get what it can get. But, given power trumps reason, Athens doesn’t want what it can get. It wants more, to paraphrase Biegun. Reality is something one is free to ignore. One is free to ignore the reality of gravity by jumping off Trump Tower.  That is a freedom one possesses, but that freedom has consequences if acted upon.

Deadlock in the diplomatic process risks the collapse of inter-Korean détente and rapprochement as the US position on denuclearisation can, and has, blocked substantive progress. Inter-Korean détente is a major factor behind Pyongyang’s pursuit of denuclearisation talks with the United States. Should US intransigence block progress, and North Koreans continue to live in hunger, Kim intimated in his new year address that Pyongyang would pursue a new course. What that course might be remains a mystery. Kim Jong-un is puzzled by how Washington calculates, so we are told. Kim does not understand, if that’s true, that Washington is prepared to run odds of nuclear war of one third to even should its power and prestige be at stake. He thinks those odds are lower. Just how high does Washington consider to be too high? Do we want Kim to learn this empirically as he embarks upon his new course?

A third? No. A half? No. Two thirds? No. Three quarters? No. Nine tenths? No. Ninety nine hundredths? Quite possibly.

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From Hubris to Nemesis: Aleksandar Vucic and the 1 of 5 Million Protests in Serbia.

For the Serbs the scene is by now familiar. As familiar as the fake tits and fake melodrama of reality TV. Aleksandar Vucic, the President of the Republic, former extreme nationalist now reforming neoliberal Eurocrat, stands triumphant at his party headquarters, sycophantically flanked from behind by his lackeys, as he proclaims yet another electoral victory for his Serbian Progressive Party.  It doesn’t matter where that victory might have occurred nor how small the locale. No place provides too small an excuse for the exhibition of hubris.

The last example of the species, in December 2018, was most instructive. This occurred after contiguous municipal elections in several small local municipalities, the most significant centred upon the town of Lucani with a grand total of 5,142 inhabitants. The local election campaign saw Lucani plastered with electoral material by the ruling party, invariably featuring the visage or the name of the President of the Republic. Party activists from all over Serbia were bussed in for the campaign, especially on voting day. The State Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, reputed to have ties to the criminal underground, although in Serbia underground appears to be a misnomer, oversaw this operation on the day of the election. Video exists showing the head of the largest employer in town extolling his assembled workers to vote for the ruling party. Media with a national distribution, both electronic and print, provided little space for opposition parties to air their case. Vucic won, of course, and so there was the President once more at party headquarters. Again triumphant, a triumph as real as silicone. The display of hubris was of a type revealing an essential smallness of character.

Was it not those from a little bit down south who observed long long long ago that hubris makes way for nemesis?

In the very midst of the Lucani campaign the protest movement currently rocking the country, the 1-of-5 Million demonstrations, began to take shape. Instead of petering out into nothing, as hubris doubtless thought they would, the protests have only grown in scale both numerically and geographically. From seemingly nowhere the greatest Serb since Stefan Nemanja, the holder of the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky, bestowed upon him by the grandest of all the Russias mind you, a man publicly given to openly contemplating decades of rule found himself unexpectedly confronting the dim, though very real, outlines of nemesis.

The message for Aleksandar Vucic is clear enough. Nemesis is real, and it’s spectacular.

One could almost feel in the marrow of one’s bones his credibility, his aura, his strut taking a hammering unlike at any preceding moment. Something seemed to snap in Serb society and Vucic continues to be unsettled by the nationwide protest movement which gathers momentum week by week by week. The demonstrations are now into their 12th consecutive weekend, and they’re matched for longevity only by the Yellow Vests movement of France. The proximate cause of the scale, growth and persistence of the protests was Vucic’s declaration that he would not meet even one of the demands of the initial protest even if their number should be five million. Hence the slogan adopted by the movement, “1-of-5-Million.”

Hubris, that is to say.

Vucic demonstrates a certain progression in so far as these things go. Back in the day, in March 1991, Slobodan Milosevic felt compelled to sit in on a televised meeting with protesting students, one of who’s number, Dragan Djilas, is a prominent opposition figure to Vucic and to whom we return. As did Chinese Premier Li Peng in 1989. Both Milosevic and Li received a humiliating tongue lashing broadcast to the nation. The tanks in both Belgrade and Beijing came later. Vucic evidently doesn’t fell the same obligation as Milosevic and Li, nor does Macron in Paris.  Times have changed. The gas and the armour, in Belgrade if not Paris, remain confined to barracks. For now.

For those with a sense of history there’s no small irony here. At the September 1987 8th Plenum of the Central Committee of the 10th Congress of the League of Communists of Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic effectively took power, one of Milosevic’s key backers, long standing party supremo Dusan Ckrebic, infamously declared “Srbija je umorna od lidera.” Serbia is tired of leaders. Apparently not, for since has followed one charismatic authority figure centralising power in their person after another; Milosevic, Zoran Djindjic, Boris Tadic, Aleksandar Vucic.

Serbia’s nationalists have long argued that the most consequential purge for Serb interests in Tito’s Yugoslavia was that of Tito’s key right hand man, Aleksandar Rankovic who took the revolutionary nom de guerre “Leka” and “Marko.” They say after the fall of Rankovic Kosovo was progressively cleansed of its Serb population. That Yugoslavia began its slide toward an ethnic confederation. I would argue, rather, that the most consequential purge was that of Marko Nikezic in 1972 by Tito, and Dragisa Pavlovic (the Belgrade party boss) in 1987 at the 8th Plenum by Milosevic. Both purges represented a cross roads that ultimately foreclosed a more enlightened, more progressive, more tolerant, and more emancipated future. Call it socialism with a human face if you will. The Serbs again find themselves at a cross roads.

Is Serbia tired of leaders?

The 1-of-5-Million protest movement has developed almost in parallel with the Yellow Vests movement in France. These are, at time of writing, the largest sustained protest movements in Europe. Aleksandar Vucic has taken a fig leaf out of Macron’s playbook and began a fake country wide “dialogue.”  I would submit that both movements arise from similar impulses and teach us similar lessons even though they have different methods. The protests in Serbia should not be viewed in isolation. They are symptomatic of a wider malaise that exists in the Balkans, which has increasingly been recognised and commented on. However, the underlying cause of the malaise has rarely been identified and discussed.

That can be found in the reincorporation of the Balkans into the periphery of the world capitalist system. This has been accompanied by the progressive Central Americanisation of Balkan political and economic life. What Central America is for the capitalist colossus to the North, the Balkans are to the traditional centres of capitalist and imperial power in northern and western Europe.

One of the most revealing, if not the most revealing, episodes of the Cold War occurred in the Balkans and that at a nondescript meeting in Sofia. What happened has been related by Raymond Garthoff in his memoirs, US Ambassador to Bulgaria in the late 1970s and a superb former CIA analyst. Garthoff has the Bulgarian Communist Party boss, Todor Zhivkov, at a diplomatic gathering proclaiming Bulgaria to be a colonial power for she imports raw materials from the Soviet Union, at subsidised prices, and exports back manufactured industrial and consumer products including to the wider Warsaw Pact. The extraction of resources was from centre to periphery, the export of manufactured goods from periphery to centre. Moscow was Sofia’s third world. There would be few in Bulgaria who would say the same today of NATO or the EU and no Central American would ever have said the same of Washington even in jest.

Nor could the Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Romanians, Albanians, Macedonians nor Greeks say the same of Washington, Brussels, Berlin and London today either. The experience of the former Yugoslavia and Greece is perhaps the most closely related. For different reasons to do with different historical processes both Greece and Yugoslavia managed to escape from a subordinate position in the periphery of the world capitalist system, coming to enjoy a type of semi-peripheral status during the Cold War. However, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Eurozone debt crisis has effectively seen the former Yugoslav republics, including Slovenia, and Greece return to their traditional peripheral status in the world capitalist system. Eastern Europe and Ireland constitute the original third world. 

Allow me to return to Serbia to sketch this thesis out further. The regime of Aleksandar Vucic is often described externally as “populist” but that is misleading. Two of the main ramparts of Vucic’s claim to legitimacy demonstrate this. Vucic has always argued that he has, correctly, diligently brought macroeconomic stability to Serbia, and that through an austerity programme at the direction of European and international economic and financial institutions what in Central America would be called “structural adjustment.” This process Vucic in his Eurocratese calls “fiscal consolidation.” The second is his boasting that he has created a favourable investment climate for multinational corporations and investors. Vucic is endlessly seen in yellow vest visiting a factory or a construction project touting this. Aleksandar Vucic is not a populist. He is a good little neoliberal satrap.

The 1-of-5-Million protests took off after the leader of the small Serbian Left Party (Levica Srbije), Borko Stefanovic, was brutally attacked following an opposition gathering in the town of Krusevac in late November. Many of the tiny opposition political parties in Serbia have joined a broad coalition called “Alliance for Serbia” in hopes of confronting Vucic and his Progressive Party collectively. It’s a coalition featuring left, centre, conservative, liberal, and nationalist parties. The smallish rally in Krusevac was organised by the Alliance for Serbia. Stefanovic was viciously smashed in the head with a metal implement by a group of thugs, an attack that left him with a profusely bloodied shirt and in emergency. Stefanovic himself maintains that the attack was an act of attempted murder by local supporters of the regime. The evidence appears to support his assertion of provenance. The protest in Belgrade following that attack, demanding a “stop to bloody shirts,” attracted a larger than expected gathering. A televised report by a young journalist on regime friendly TV, a woman whose father is connected to the apparatus of power, in comical fashion declared not many were in attendance, the protest organisers were hypocrites for they had called for lynchings, raping, a coup d’etat and on and on. The litany quickly went viral. Vucic arrogantly chimed in with his hubristic declaration. These were the sticks that broke the proverbial’s back.  The attack on Stefanovic was by no means an isolated incident.

The political order in Serbia, as applies throughout the Balkans, consists of a neopatrimonial system of patron-client networks where control of the state and politically connected commercial enterprises are used to dispense patronage. Multinational investors and corporations are aware of the rules, and happily comply with them. That is no small concern in a region characterised by high rates of poverty and unemployment. Those who can dispense patronage come to possess political authority, and so the exercise of power becomes highly concentrated in the individual rather than the institutionalised structure of the state. Political power is not invested in institutions, the rule of law, or democratic participation. Whether a state is or isn’t a member of the EU has no real bearing on this.

Take, for example, the town of Jagodina. Here Dragan Markovic “Palma” (Palm Tree), a former associate of the war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic “Arkan,” to whom Milosevic sub contracted some of his atrocities (for a cut of course), has effectively reigned supreme and that for a long time. He is well connected to the overall structure of power, both now and when Boris Tadic was President, and his capacity to dispense patronage in Jagodina is considerable. Every year some of the poorest inhabitants of Jagodina are invited to attend his party offices to relate the misfortunes and miseries of their lives to the chieftain. After hearing their tales of woe, he taps each on the shoulder declaring proudly how much, not much, money they will receive from wherever due to his grace and benevolence alone. When one’s eyes bare witness to the spectacle what is there for one to do other than tearfully pity the nation.

The media, especially the mass media which alone can reach a national audience, is owned by corporations and investors closely enmeshed to the patrimonial power structure. They favourably report on the doings of the leader and the ruling party, while largely ignoring opposition politicians, free thinking intellectuals and independent commentators. The rancid tabloids function as the regime’s attack dogs who enforce discipline through smear, slur, and smut.

Aleksandar Vucic sits at the top of this structure and the more influence his party obtains throughout the society the more pervasive his role at the apex of the pyramid formed by the integrated patron-client networks becomes. Only the town of Sabac is not controlled by Vucic’s party, much to his chagrin it might be added. Employment in both the private and public sectors, from top to bottom, is dependent not so much on merit as loyalty and connection to the ruling party. Nothing happens in Serbia that does not find the approval of Aleksandar Vucic. His presidency of the ruling party gives him more real power than his heading the state, which is why he has had real power in Serbia since 2012.

The patron-client networks enabling all this have been infiltrated by the mafia, and so it has become difficult to know where the mafia ends, and the state begins. The political system is of an authoritarian-mafioso type. Those who criticise all this can, and have been, subject to violence. In Kosovska Mitrovica it is widely reputed a local thug possessing defacto power and close ties to the regime may have been involved in the murder of the opposition politician Oliver Ivanovic. Whether that is true or not isn’t really known as more than one year later the murder remains unsolved. Unsolved crimes in Serbia are regarded as intimating state and or mafia connivance, a functional perception for it leads to the view that the law provides no protection for dissidents and activists who are quickly arrested when need be. The house of a journalist investigating the alleged nefarious activities of a local tender process has been fire bombed whilst he was quietly sleeping inside with his wife. He too has described that act as attempted murder. The crime remains unsolved, although the police can be relied upon to evict destitute tenants at a moment’s notice. Local newspapers are shut down on account of low advertising revenue.  Not too many companies are prepared to advertise in independent newspapers so risking the next tender. That too is a widespread feature of Balkan media.

This follows from the incorporation of the Balkans into the periphery of the world capitalist system, and the subsequent Central Americanisation of Balkan life. Our picture of Central America is one of rampant terrorist states inflicting mass terror upon their populations and that largely confined to the Reagan era. To be sure this has been the experience, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua, following the growth of active resistance to the imposition of third world capitalism. But for the most part the region was, and continues to be, characterised by a regime of low level terror. The occasional murder, beatings, harassment, defamation, and so on constitute the normal run of the mill. The low level terror always carries an implicit threat of escalation. We see a similar low level terror increasingly characterising the Balkans, and the correlation with Central America is no accident. The current order in the Balkans is at variance with democracy because its Central American style incorporation into the third world, a process overseen by corrupt and kleptocratic domestic elites on the familiar third world model, does not conform to the preferences of the population nor does it meet with their consent.  The imperial centre becomes concerned only should one of two things happen. When the local elites, through a mixture of greed, hubris and incompetence lose control so imperilling the stability of the colonial order or when a local satrap should get out of control by ceasing to loyally follow orders perhaps also through greed, hubris or incompetence.

The reports on all this in the imperial media has emphasised the authoritarian manner of Vucic’s rule, and at times have made similar points regarding the other Balkan states. But Serbia has received a singular focus unlike the others. This is not because protest movements haven’t existed elsewhere. It is because Vucic runs a nonaligned foreign policy, not to be confused with a pro Russian foreign policy, and one more tilted toward the West than commonly assumed. Vucic supports Serbia’s armed neutrality rather than its joining NATO. It takes only a few seconds of thought to see this. The same media that, correctly, criticises the authoritarianism of Vucic in Serbia takes umbrage at any suggestion you should not die for Milo Djukanovic next door in Montenegro a NATO member state and soon to join the EU. Compared to Djukanovic, Vucic is not just a choir boy but a veritable Castrato. Nobody quite reaches the heights of kleptocracy like Djukanovic, although the Western protectorate of Kosovo doesn’t lag far behind.  The irony is that Belgrade’s nonaligned foreign policy is the one thing most Serbs find little to fault Vucic with, yet it is precisely what the New York Times and the imperial centre most dislike about him. They rather wish that Belgrade become a fully subordinate neocolonial dependency like every other Balkan state that does what it’s told, when it’s told, no questions asked. In return, as Djukanovic well shows, the satraps can do as they please domestically so long as they keep things stable and the profits flowing.  

The incorporation of the Balkans into the periphery of the world capitalist system has resulted in a socioeconomic catastrophe. Serbia has not just one of the lowest per capita GDP rates in Europe. It just about has the lowest per capita GDP in the Balkans, which is no mean feat. Both the average and minimum wage are shockingly low, with the minimum wage often violated by corporations who know the patrimonial state can be relied upon to ignore its own laws, and those on fixed incomes such as pensioners eke out an existence as best they can.  Hungry, injured animals haunt the streets. The country, like elsewhere in the Balkans, has been deindustrialised through neoliberal privatisations that took the form of state sanctioned robbery and piracy. In Serbia that is a process that mostly followed the October 2000 revolution that overthrew Milosevic. The tycoonisation or oligarchisation of Serb society happened after, not before, October 2000. Vucic, like Putin, has built his legitimacy by promising to eliminate the oligarchs as a class.  But both have only disciplined the oligarchs in the interests of stability, whereby stability is meant oligarchic stability. The oligarchic order thereby can continue to function, and the riches can remain in dirty hands hopefully in perpetuity. Vucic and Putin have not eliminated the oligarchs as a class so much as saved them from the consequences of their own avarice, and so delayed the oligarchs’ own meeting with nemesis. One of those to implement, and benefit from, the neoliberal privatisations was Dragan Djilas, the key leader of the opposition Alliance for Serbia and former Major of Belgrade. He isn’t the only political figure of significance in the opposition to have had a prominent seat in the governments responsible for the tycoonisation of Serbia.

One means of investigating the impact that third worldisation has had on the region is through the textile, clothing and footwear industry a typical third world socioeconomic bellwether. In 2017 the Clean Clothes campaign reported on the working conditions of Serbia’s garment workers, who previously would have worked in industries nominally theirs and nominally managed by them under Tito’s slogan of “workers self management” but who now toil, and they do toil, for multinational brands. They conclude that many of Serbia’s TCF workers are paid wages below a living wage, work long hours, often are confined to their machines without even allowed a toilet break, paid below the minimum wage, often working in summer without air conditioning, are asked to sign contracts foreclosing pregnancy and on it goes. At the expressing of the merest displeasure or pleas for mercy workers are offered a choice; work or walk out the door. That is what it means to work and to live in a third world society. For multinational capital the Balkans provide a ready source of cheap and well trained human capital.  The effect on the social fabric has been horrific. Family breakdown, domestic violence, criminalisation of urban life, drug use, sex trafficking, suicides taking the form of deaths of despair, a stampede of the young to greener pastures, that is all the familiar horrors of the colonial form long known to have affected Central American life.

External reports of the current protests emphasise its political aspect. The bit about liberty, press freedom, democracy, and free assembly. These are important. But so are the social and economic aspects. But these are systematically ignored, and for good reason. The colonial overseers do not want these to change any. But, as I have sought to show, the dichotomy is false for both the political and the social are intimately related to the reincorporation of the Balkans into the world capitalist system.

I have seen Leftist critiques of the protests that argue they should be opposed because, unlike previous protests such as the Protiv Diktature (Against Dictatorship) demonstrations and the Ne Davimo Beograd protests, they are organised by the Alliance for Serbia, rather than social movements, the core of which seeks to slavishly adhere to the dictates of the centre through the institution of a purer neoliberal order. Their most significant publicly articulated support comes from the liberal intelligentsia, which is no less committed to neoliberal dogma now than before. Whatever one might say about the current political system one valuable thing its patron-client networks do is provide a rudimentary social welfare state that cushions some of the blow of the region’s reincorporation into the world capitalist system. Should those like Dragan Djilas get their way Serbia would revert to an even more mean spirited neoliberal order. I find myself not agreeing with these sentiments. That is because, as argued by the Left Libertarian political sociologist Jovo Bakic, uprooting of the political system is the demand before all demands. By changing the political system, rather than changing leaders, quite apart from its intrinsic justification, space is opened for the Left to organise. A space it currently does not have. Furthermore, the current protests are sustained through involvement of the many activist groups and currents which have arisen across the country, and that have long opposed the neoliberal privations discussed earlier. The movement has come to transcend the opposition parties and the liberal intelligentsia.

So it is that we come to our last point, the relation of the 1-of-5-Million protest movement to the Yellow Vests in France. I think there are two points worthy of consideration. The first is the absence of the organised working class, a characteristic both movements share. The second is the absolute necessity in the era of globalised capitalism for actions and solidarity that extends beyond national borders.

The October 2000 revolution that overthrew Milosevic has been mischaracterised in some important respects by the Left. It is often seen as a US led and financed operation seeking to overthrow a government up against the globalised new world order. Milosevic at the time was not struggling against the new world order, rather he was struggling to find a way to make his peace with it so he could again become the guarantor of Balkan peace and stability in the eyes of Washington. The US factor was certainly there, but essentially the revolution was organised and conducted by a people that rose up to defend an election Milosevic was trying to steal from them. Given the date we are thankfully spared the thesis that October 2000 was facilitated by Facebook and Twitter.

A key factor behind the revolution was the emergence of an autonomous working class movement that took direct action to defend its political interests through democratic seizure of the means of production. There were two key facets to this. The first was the occupation of the critical Kolubara coal mine whose coal accounts for 52% of the electricity produced in Serbia. So concerned was Milosevic by this he took the drastic step of ordering his Chief of Staff, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, to attend the barricades and negotiate with the workers. Secondly, throughout the country crisis committees, largely functioning as workers’ councils, developed through factory occupations supportive of calls for a general strike. These twin actions had two critical effects. They demonstrated that Milosevic had lost the confidence of his social base and could only corral the working class through military force, which the armed forces were not prepared to countenance. Furthermore, combined with external hostility, they led many in the state apparatus to the calculation that Milosevic’s days were numbered so facilitating their switch to the revolution. Indeed, an important factor behind Milosevic losing the election he tried to salvage through robbery was the relative collapse of his support amongst the working class and the peasantry.  

Class struggle is very much missing from the 1-of-5-Million protest movement, and that’s not just because of degraded social and cultural conditions. It is because after October 2000 the working class was deceived by many of the party leaders now opposed to Vucic. It is they who took on the colonial responsibility of reincorporating the society into the periphery of the world capitalist system. There exists widespread distrust of the motives of the opposition parties, and concern that whatever might happen on the streets the net effect would be their return to power something not desired by the working classes. Jovo Bakic has correctly stated that the current protests are best seen as a warming up for something altogether larger in scope and scale. Only the working class can fill the breach between the warm up and the revolution. Only the working class can ensure, through continued vigilance and mobilisation, that the ferment in the streets does not again become an opportunity to be exploited by the neoliberals. In France we see the same inchoate response of the organised Left to the Yellow Vests movement, which can only go so far without the mass support of the working class organised at the point of production.

The other crucial missing ingredient is international action and solidarity. Without organised resistance, without an international picket line, the working class cannot fundamentally change the system of global capitalism especially in the periphery. That’s because any social movement would be met with capital strikes enabled by the internationalisation of the system of production and finance. That is especially so in the Balkans which is too small to successfully resist an internationally organised capital strike. The neoliberal order and globalised capitalism fit together hand in glove, and moment-by-moment capital strikes impacting across borders are critical to its stable reproduction. Organised movements at the national level can win concessions and make gains especially in the advanced industrial states, and these should not be dismissed, but overcoming neoliberalism, that is globalising capitalism, requires international action. The Yellow Vests have yet to be supported by the mobilisation of the French working class, yet alone the European. The same applies in the Balkans. The flip side to this is that global capitalism is encouraging the sprouting up of social movements in opposition to the depredations and vulgarities of the neoliberal order. These arise as if mushrooms. They come, they go. Some hang around for relatively longer than others, some have impacts yet wider from their source of origin. Witness Serbia, better still the Balkan peninsula, which has seen many come and go from its fertile soil. Some of these will take on sturdy roots holding them in place, allowing their growth, facilitating their spread. It is through this struggle that the global working class will come to know of its own being and to know of the necessity of international action and solidarity.

I had promised to finish with these last two points. But I cannot finish without making a point about something that is said to be missing from the 1-of-5-Million protests.


The choice that Serb society makes here too has great bearing on its future as a tolerant, open and enlightened society. Two commentators have recently drawn interesting historical parallels regarding Kosovo. Ljubisa Ristic, a well known theatre director and exponent of the thespian arts from the Yugoslav period (but also former president of the vanity party of Milosevic’s wife), compared the formation of the Kosovo state with the formation of Panama. He may well be right but if so only with regard to method. The better analogy was drawn by Milos Kovic an historian of the younger generation who hails from Sabac hence close to home. Kovic has stated in a recent interview that Kosovo is like Israel. Just as the Jews through centuries of domination dreamed of a return to the holy land so did the Serbs. But Kovic leaves the analogy there. He should have gone on to say that in the 20th century the Serbs returned to Kosovo, like the Jews returned to Israel-Palestine, only to find it largely populated by another people.

From that point Kosovo could remain a part of Serbia only in the same fashion that Israel-Palestine could remain an exclusively Jewish state, namely through the occupation of a people possessing their own identity and their own national aspirations. That can be done only in a fashion that risks perpetual war and conflict.  A tolerant, democratic, and enlightened Serbia cannot make the same choice as Israel, and the making of that same choice a person of principle cannot support. That is not to say that the Serb population of Kosovo, especially in the north whose land and communities were long part of Serbia proper not Kosovo, have not been subject to discrimination and violent ethnic cleansing. They have, and that as late as the organised pogrom of 2004 under the very eyes of NATO. That’s not to say that the Albanians of Kosovo possess a monopoly on suffering and virtue. They don’t. That’s not to say that the Serb population doesn’t have the right of self determination both intrinsically and given recent history. That they do. But all these points apply in reverse, and to deny that is to deny reason. Even Kosovo can have no future as a tolerant and enlightened society so long as its very essence is defined against the Serb other, a point no less applicable to Croat, Bosniak and Montenegrin society. The Balkans can never be the master of its own destiny so long as the divisions among her peoples are seen as primary for that serves the interests of global capitalism and imperial power.

The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in his Statism and Anarchy, one of the most insightful works of political analysis and theory since Aristotle’s Politics, said of the new Serbian state that developed after the emancipation of the Serbs from Ottoman rule; “The one and only function of the State, therefore, is to exploit the Serbian people in order to provide the bureaucrats with all the comforts of life.”

Find one Serb who disagrees with that sentence and you shall find for me a Serb on the payroll of Aleksandar Vucic.

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Incommensurability: Mostly Harmless

The limits of language mean the limits of my world, so tweeted Ludwig Wittgenstein before Twitter. One might want to regard that as being puzzling given our every day notions of causality. Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions stated of his much discussed incommensurability thesis, “these examples point to the third and most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms. In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds.”

The connection to Wittgenstein that can be so drawn is an important one.

In a previous post I had written a review of three books that I had recently read. One of these was Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. The part on Wittgenstein fits oddly, and I have since thought that section could have been more nuanced. Anyway, such is life for we live and learn. One thing that I wished to discuss was the connection between Wittgenstein’s highly valuable use theory of meaning, a value derived from its explicit rejection of an externalist semantics, and Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis.

It seems to me Kuhn’s thesis is pretty much trivial, it being a restatement of Wittgenstein’s use theory of meaning made applicable to the specific context of science. Furthermore, the debate on epistemic relativism that the Kuhn thesis continues to engender comes across as much ado about nothing when viewed in Wittgensteinian vein. Wittgenstein’s use theory arises from his latter work especially The Philosophical Investigations. Here Wittgenstein’s states, “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Note that it is use “in the language” that Wittgenstein speaks of. If you take a scientific theory to be a language then concepts of importance to the theory, let’s say in physics such as causation, mass, energy, space, time and so on derive their meaning through use in the language, that is via their use in theory. Science is one of Wittgenstein’s large cases.

Let us take causation or causality. In Aristotelian theory, within the language that constitutes the corpus of Aristotle’s thought, the concept cause does not have the same use, so the same meaning, as that in Newtonian theory.  Aristotle’s use of causality was essentialist and teleological. In Newtonian theory cause and effect arise through external forces acting upon bodies.  Newton’s laws of motion make use of just such a concept of causality. The modern picture, to the extent that causality is retained (in relativity at least), is certainly not Newton’s but for simplicity of argument allow us to stick to this distinction.

Incommensurability means that Aristotle’s and Newton’s conception of causality differ but nonetheless no one conception possesses any more sense or meaning than the other. Aristotle’s conception of causality is not any more nonsensical than Newton’s and Newton’s is not any more meaningful than Aristotle’s. This is because meaning comes through use within a language, and there exists no transcendental language to which we might appeal to declare one conception more meaningful than another.

That to me seems like a straightforward, indeed trivial, extension of Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning to the matter of science. There really shouldn’t be anything here for us to get excited about. But we do get excited because many draw relativist conclusions from this, even though they cannot follow. Some draw that relativism favourably, so the strong programme in the sociology of science draws relativist conclusions from incommensurability and her exponents quite enjoy it. The feeling is one of chic radicalism and naughty subversion. Others, who seek to defend the cognitive or epistemic claims of science, also draw relativist conclusions but are outraged by this fearing for the future of western civilisation no less. There must be something amiss with Kuhn, the defenders of the honour of science valiantly declare. Indeed, their must be something not right about the very idea of a conceptual scheme.

Should the causality of Aristotle be no less meaningful than the causality of Newton then Newtonian science has no superior claim to the truth. Heaven forbid, should the causation of astrology be no less meaningful than the causation of Einstein. Surely in such a situation the epistemic warrant of science would be torn asunder. But it is not hard to see that such is not so. Recall Wittgenstein’s use theory of meaning is an internalist semantics. It is not an externalist or referential theory of meaning. The charge of relativism sticks only to the extent that we allow ourselves to succumb to one of the key dogmas of empiricist philosophy, namely meaning is a species of reference. Should that be the case then the causality of astrology has no less referential warrant than the causality of Einstein. But an internalist is not worried by this, and she happily finds better things to think about than incommensurability and the epistemic foundations of science. Life is too short to worry about pseudo problems, and an examined life is not a life to be devoted to such pursuits. We might get ourselves from Kuhn semantic relativism but certainly not epistemic relativism.

There is more than a pinch of irony here. Apart from demonstrating the hold that referential understandings of meaning continue to have, they show that both supporters and critics of the strong programme, in so far both hold incommensurability leads to epistemic relativity, share a strong commitment to empiricist dogma given both positions are underpinned by a referential semantics.

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Will Fissile Materials Lead to a Fizzle Summit at Hanoi?

As we know the second Kim-Trump summit is scheduled for February 27-28 and is to be held at Hanoi. The lead up to the summit has, naturally, provoked much by way of comment and analysis. Too much to survey adequately here, but one aspect looms large and has the potential to block substantive progress toward peace and rapprochement on the Korean peninsula. This is the matter of North Korea’s fissile material production capabilities, the declaration thereof, either in full or in part, and its complete, verifiable, dismantlement again either in full or in part. The full versions of these appear to be the standard developed to judge Hanoi even though President Trump in his Friday press conference, mostly devoted to the so called border wall, stated that for him “we just don’t want testing” by which he means missile and nuclear weapons testing.

But before we discuss the emerging standard, we need to comment upon the following statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which Reuters cites in a report on the current state of play. The Pompeo statement was made in an interview with Fox News and concerns the significance of a formal end to the Korean War in the latest phase of the denuclearisation negotiations between the United States and North Korea

… “It’s something we’ve had a lot of talks about. In fact, my team will redeploy to Asia here in a day or two to continue conversations around all elements that were discussed back in Singapore.” …

In 2018 in a post here I had framed the hypothesis, through the exercise of reason rather than firm documentary evidence, that the US had pledged North Korea, during the discussions between Kim and Trump at Singapore, in exchange for the dismantling of the facility for static hot testing large liquid propelled missile/rocket engines at Tonghang-ri (i.e. at the Sohae satellite launch facility) Washington would agree to a declaration on the end of the Korean War. That declaration is not to be confused with a formal peace treaty. Alex Ward, in a report at Vox based on information from official sources, subsequently reported

…President Donald Trump told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their Singapore summit in June that he’d sign a declaration to end the Korean War soon after their meeting, according to multiple sources familiar with the negotiations…

Tongchang-ri has widely been understood to be Kim’s major concrete and specific commitment made at Singapore. This strongly suggests a reciprocal like-for-like action of the type favoured by North Korea. A peace declaration in exchange for engine test facility dismantlement.

It is reasonable to interpret Pompeo’s remarks to Fox News as an implicit recognition of Washington’s foot dragging on its end of the Singapore bargain. To be sure the Singapore talks would have discussed how the US might move toward relaxing what North Korea regards as its “hostile policy,” so Pompeo’s remarks are not necessarily an explicit recognition of Trump’s duplicity but knowing the, by now well buried, background leads one to reasonably infer they are. This is baggage the Hanoi summit is saddled with and, clearly, requires adroit handling in the lead up to and the conduct of the second summit. To this we return.

Many a public comment from US and South Korean officials, academic and policy oriented analysts, and the western media has had the effect of drawing a standard by which the second summit is to be measured. The US military publication, Stars and Stripes, carried an article, originally published by Bloomberg News, containing as good a statement of that metric as can be found. It concludes with the following quote attributed to Moon Chung-in, President Moon Jae-in’s Special Adviser for Foreign Affairs and National Security

…”If North Korea continues to produce nuclear materials even after the Hanoi summit, I would say that’s the most important indicator that the Hanoi summit failed,”…

One reason why we need to be cautious here is that upon initial inspection this metric appears to put the onus on North Korea. Hanoi is on Pyongyang’s bat. Should North Korea not stop producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons (note Moon says “nuclear materials” on that reckoning more than just fissile materials and stopping production is not the same as plant dismantlement although the wider context in which the remark was made suggests that it is) then Hanoi would have failed, and the unspoken corollary in media reports is that should Hanoi fail blame properly can be assigned Pyongyang. A little thought shows that US actions in exchange are no less important, Pyongyang’s dismantling in whole or in part its fissile material production plants is dependent on what Washington provides in exchange and that aspect becomes even more salient given the post Singapore record just discussed. The Singapore summit is presented as a failure on account of North Korean deception even though that charge is best laid at the door of the White House.

The key item on the denuclearisation agenda at Hanoi, we can at the least say, appears to be the fissile material production facilities of North Korea. Should North Korea continue to possess fissile material production plants and produce fissile materials after Hanoi then the summit is to be regarded as a fizzle, or so we are informed. Now this is where things get interesting, and potentially tricky for we have the small matter of how many fissile material production facilities North Korea has and whereabouts they be. We might remember that by now famous CNBC report, citing multiple US intelligence officials, claiming North Korea appears to have at least two uranium enrichment facilities beyond the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon and the subsequent discovery of what appears to be one of those clandestine plants by OSINT analysts, the original and oldest, known as the Kangson plant at Chollima. Let’s run with that, not everybody accepts this picture in its entirety but let’s run with it all the same. We take North Korea’s fissile material production facilities to consist of the 5 MWe plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon, the plutonium reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, the Kangson uranium enrichment plant at Chollima, a pilot enrichment facility at an unknown location, and at least one more uranium enrichment plant also at an unknown location. The pilot plant is not technically a fissile material production facility but obviously it would need to be included in any comprehensive agreement covering Pyongyang’s fissile material capabilities. For its part North Korea has not publicly acknowledged possession of facilities capable of producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons other than those at Yongbyon.

We also know that North Korea, at the very least, has publicly put the Yongbyon nuclear complex on the negotiating table, most notably at the September 2018 Pyongyang summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in. According to the Pyongyang Declaration arising from that summit

…The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement…

Let us return to the Stars and Stripes linked article above

…Last month, U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun said that Kim had committed to the dismantlement of enrichment facilities “beyond Yongbyon” in conversations with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and South Korean leaders…

We have ourselves here seemingly yet another implicit admission this time from the North Koreans. Pyongyang, it is implied by the above, admitted to the United States that it possesses hitherto clandestine fissile material production facilities, specifically clandestine uranium enrichment plants. One cannot commit to dismantling what one does not acknowledge possessing. That’s worth reflecting on a tad because in October 2002 then senior North Korea State Department negotiator, James Kelly, following a meeting in Pyongyang conducted under Gothic circumstances, at the earliest opportunity available to him sent a cable to Washington claiming that North Korea had admitted to a secret uranium enrichment programme. It appears that the Kangson enrichment plant at Chollima began construction in 2002 and was operational by 2003. The contents of that cable were quickly leaked to the media which had the effect of pulling the political rug under the diplomatic process. At the time John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Advisor and a longstanding member of Washington’s permanent war party, worked for the State Department and labelled the bureau that Kelly headed, the East Asia and Pacific Affairs bureau or EAP in short, as “EAPsers.” It is quite possible that Bolton was responsible for the rapid leaking of the contents of Kelly’s cable to the press. North Korea, for its part, has always denied making an admission to possessing a clandestine enrichment programme.

It is now implied that North Korea has once again admitted to a clandestine uranium enrichment programme. This is implicit to much of the reporting on this by the western media. No statement from North Korea suggests that it has made such an admission, and precedent would suggest that we be cautious in accepting claims attributing an admission to North Korea made by US officials alone. I am sceptical about whether Pyongyang has admitted to Washington that it possesses clandestine fissile material production facilities. A seeming admission of a clandestine uranium enrichment programme has scuttled diplomacy with North Korea before and setting up the end of fissile material production tout court in North Korea as the litmus test for Hanoi threatens to do so again.

As noted above the seeming admission by North Korea arises from an important and wide ranging speech, including a good question and answer session led by Robert Carlin whose analyses exhibit a rich mixture of nuance and insight, by Mike Pompeo’s North Korea special envoy, Stephen Biegun, at Stanford University. There is much to be said about that talk, but let us remain on topic. In an otherwise very good analysis of the Biegun talk by Leon Sigal at 38North it is stated

…You’d never know that from most news accounts that Biegun confirmed Kim Jong Un’s commitment, made at his last meeting with Secretary of State Pompeo, to “dismantle” all of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium fissile material production facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere “and more” [Snip]

Instead of focusing on the larger picture, most news accounts emphasized the urgency of obtaining a complete inventory of North Korea’s new nuclear assets. AFP’s Shaun Tandon’s lede read, “A US negotiator called Thursday on North Korea to provide a detailed account of its weapons to seal a peace deal, saying President Donald Trump was ready to offer a future that includes diplomatic relations and economic aid.”…

Sigal goes on to provide further examples supporting his contention, which is in accord with the emerging metric. Should North Korean fissile material production after Hanoi continue, because not all the facilities have been declared and verifiably dismantled, then the summit could be construed a failure. The commitment is locked and loaded. But this what Biegun said

… In addition to the commitments on Tongchang-ri and Punggye-ri, Chairman Kim also committed, in both the joint statement from the aforementioned Pyongyang summit as well as during the Secretary of State’s October meetings in Pyongyang, to the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities. This complex of sites that extends beyond Yongbyon represents the totality of North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programs…

In September 2018, as we have seen, Kim pledged to dismantle Yongbyon in exchange for a suitable, unspecified, concession from Washington. In October 2018, according to Biegun, Kim repeated that pledge hence we have Biegun speaking above of “the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and enrichment facilities.” Thereupon Biegun states, “this complex of sites that extends beyond Pyongyang” which seemingly implies that North Korea has conceded it has fissile production facilities beyond Pyongyang. Biegun’s crucial passage is divided into two parts. North Korea has pledged to dismantle its fissile production facilities, but the second statement that its fissile material production facilities go beyond Yongbyon is a claim additional to the preceding and made by Biegun alone. They are attributable to Biegun not North Korea, but that is not how matters have been reported.

Now consider Biegun’s remarks about Tongchang-ri and the Singapore summit

… At the last North-South summit in Pyongyang, Chairman Kim committed to allow access for international experts to verify the complete dismantlement and destruction of Tongchang-ri…

Even when putting aside the question of international inspections as a form of verification in addition to verification through national-technical means this statement by Biegun is false. That’s because North Korea did not agree to the “complete dismantlement and destruction of Tongchang-ri.” That facility, also known as the Sohae satellite launch facility as noted, involves more than the static hot testing of large liquid propelled missile/rocket engines. Tongchang-ri also is where North Korea has launched the Unha space launch vehicles. The static hot engine testing facility forms part of Tongchang-ri and pledging its dismantlement does not equate to a pledge to dismantle the entire facility. When Biegun speaks about North Korea now committing to the complete dismantlement of its fissile material production facilities for Hanoi it is wise for the buyer to beware.

But that North Korea has admitted to the existence of fissile material production facilities beyond Yongbyon and, moreover, has pledged in talks to dismantle them for a suitable price has become an established fact. But it isn’t an established fact and cannot be until the North Koreans themselves have spoken. Precedent at the very least gives us grounds for scepticism. That the complete, verified, halting of all fissile material production in North Korea has become the a priori standard to assess the Hanoi summit is concerning. Both liberal and neoconservative opinion would rejoice if it transpires that North Korea neither pledges at Hanoi to fully and verifiably halt all fissile material production or continues to produce fissile materials exclusively at clandestine facilities post Hanoi. The established narrative is such that claims of North Korean perfidy will easily be made to stick, threatening the good future of the diplomatic process and strategic stability on the Korean peninsula. That’s despite deceptive foot dragging post Singapore being better attributed to Washington than Pyongyang.

One important additional, and related, point Sigal makes above is that the media has misreported Biegun’s remarks on the US position heading into Hanoi regarding a complete declaration by North Korea of its weapons of mass destruction related facilities and capabilities. That was a position not long ago articulated by John Bolton, which brought back echoes of the lead up to the invasion of Iraq (discussed in a previous post). Biegun in his Stanford remarks states that the US position for Hanoi is that Pyongyang should make a partial declaration of its facilities and capabilities. That suggests Washington understands North Korea won’t agree to a full declaration at Hanoi. Pyongyang isn’t biting on Bolton’s bait. One concern of strategic planners in Pyongyang is that a complete, verifiable, declaration would give their US counterparts a convenient target list. That, doubtless, is a factor although US Strategic Command surely has a nifty target list and the KPA strategic rocket forces would have no illusions on that score. The matter of clandestine enrichment facilities might also be a factor behind Pyongyang’s reluctance to make a full declaration. The declaration demand could have been relaxed because, in part, Pyongyang has not, and shows no sign of, being prepared to declare its clandestine fissile material production facilities. Should that be the case then Pyongyang has not admitted to the US that it possesses clandestine fissile material production facilities.

Biegun made further remarks elsewhere in the Stanford talk on what North Korea appears to have put on the table for Hanoi that is worth considering here

…Finally and importantly, in describing to us their commitment to dismantle and destroy their plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities, the North Koreans have also added the critical words “and more.” This is essential, as there is more – much more – to do beyond these facilities to follow through on the Singapore summit commitment to complete denuclearization…

The “and more” is interpreted as meaning North Korea is putting up Yongbyon, fissile material facilities beyond Yongbyon, “and more” for Hanoi. The “and more” is not specified. The simplest way of reading this is that North Korea has committed, if the price is right, to dismantle its fissile material production facilities at Yongbyon but also additional nuclear weapons related facilities at Yongbyon. That is Kim Jong-un is offering what he offered in the Pyongyang Declaration.

This, then, leads to the question; should we accept an interim deal at Hanoi leading to partial denuclearisation and greater stability on the Korean peninsula where denuclearisation is limited to the verifiable dismantlement of Yongbyon? Surely the answer to that question should be yes, for it would promote further rapprochement between North and South Korea thus further reducing the risk that North Korea’s nuclear weapons would be used as a dangerous tool of statecraft or as weapons of war. President Trump has stated that the North Korean nuclear threat has declined since 2017. The liberal media most especially, but also neoconservative opinion, has stated that North Korea’s nuclear capacity grew in 2018 therefore the threat increased contra Trump. Let us assume, for sake of argument, that by end of 2017 North Korea had four Hwasong-15 ICBMs carrying a payload of thermonuclear warheads. Let us assume by end of 2018 that figure rose to ten Hwasong-15 ICBMs but the likelihood of their use nonetheless declined. That would mean that the nuclear threat to the United States would have declined even though the number of deployed nuclear weapons rose. The threat posed by nuclear weapons is not just a function of yield and quantity alone. The probability of use is also an important part of that function. Nobody in the United States is exercised by the yield and quantity of London’s nuclear weapons. There’s a good discussion by Ronald Chesser, Joel Wit, and Samantha Pitz at 38North on how Yongbyon might be dismantled following an agreement at Hanoi. Note that the discussion is sensibly predicated on the talks being limited to Yongbyon, sensible because that appears to be an accurate reading of what North Korea has pledged thus far.

Of course, there’s another issue here and that is the rather big matter of what Washington gives Pyongyang in exchange for pocketing Yongbyon. The Biegun remarks were wide ranging but not concrete, that is to say no concrete statement was made regarding what Washington might specifically offer North Korea at Hanoi for Yongbyon’s verified dismantlement. Here we return to Stars and Stripes which included the following

… Moon Chung-in said the U.S. should agree to allow economic projects between the two Koreas to proceed in exchange for inspections of Yongbyon — something the U.S. has so far been reluctant to do. Kim has railed against the international sanctions regime choking his moribund economy and called for resuming the projects, including a industrial park and a mountain resort…

Those two projects are most often cited as concrete economic concessions the US might make. Both are old hat. Kim Jong-un, for instance in his 2019 New Year Address, has called for bold initiatives and he clearly regards his offer to dismantle Yongbyon as a bold initiative. Whether Kim would regard Washington allowing South Korea to proceed with rejuvenating two projects from North-South summits prior to his time as a bold initiative is not so clear. Recall Pompeo’s remarks to Fox News about a declaration of the end of the Korean War. That’s baggage from Singapore and represents a pledge made there but not fulfilled. North Korea, in part, is being offered something at Hanoi which it was offered at Singapore. That too thereby is old hat. That’s significant for recall Singapore founded not on account of a North Korean grand deception but rather, in part, US foot dragging on its commitments. Should Trump offer to tweak “maximum pressure” allowing North and South Korea to again embark on joint ventures at the Kaeasong Industrial Zone and Mount Kumchang holiday resort in addition to a hitherto unfulfilled Singapore pledge Kim might well retort as did General Zia ul-Haq in a different though related context.


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The Quantum Moment, Roads to Reality, Wittgenstein and All That

Robert Crease and Alfred Goldhaber, The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty, (New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2014).

Adam Becker, What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, (London, John Murray, 2018).

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, (London, Vintage, 1990).

Nature is as screwy as she can be, so said Richard Feynman. That’s certainly the picture of nature that the quantum has left us with, although whether nature would agree with that is another matter. She may retort that she is under no obligation to comport to our conceptions of the reasonable. But that quantum mechanics is the implement we use to paint our picture of the world cannot be doubted. How that has come to be is one of the central themes of Crease and Goldhaber’s The Quantum Moment.

The authors are interested in accounting for how quantum physics has burrowed into our culture so much so that we find ourselves amid a “quantum moment.” This moment is relatively new, and has come to supplant a previous moment, the Newtonian moment, which reigned for all of 250 years. By a moment Crease and Goldhaber are referring to a period when our best physical theories transcend science to become, in a way, an encompassing metaphysical thesis a sort of weltanschauung if you will. Thus, we find complementarity, quantum leaps, Schrodinger’s cats, entanglement, principles both uncertainty and exclusion, as metaphorical concepts used in everyday discourse and which feature in our poems, our music, our films, our ideologies, the whole box and dice in fact. The book, I think, is a very useful first cut in explaining how that has come to be so.

One of the things that interests me about the quantum, and what brought me to purchase and read the book, is the idea that quantum mechanics represents a complete picture of nature. How did that idea develop and reach such dominance? One reason for being intrigued by this is that, in a philosophical sense as opposed to a technical within physics sense, there are two key pillars to the argument for why we need a quantum theory of gravity. The first is that quantum mechanics is complete and is as complete a picture of nature as is currently obtainable. The second is that general relativity, read gravitation, and quantum mechanics are incompatible. This leads to the conclusion that there must be a quantum theory of gravity. But if quantum mechanics is not complete then we have a problem. The quest for a quantum theory of gravity is now a 70 year one, but that quest has brought us, certainly thus far, no nearer to the old one. Perhaps that is because quantum gravity is a forlorn quest.

There is a significant problem to the book. The authors devote space, as they surely must, to describing and accounting for the prior Newtonian moment and then contrasting that with our own quantum moment. But that description and accounting won’t do. For Crease and Goldhaber Newton consecrated a mechanical world view, and one that was robustly deterministic. Newton in the Principia did not build a mechanical theory of nature. Far from it. Newton undermined the mechanical philosophy, in so far as central to the mechanical philosophy was a depiction of the world as a machine driven by contact mechanics. That conception was handed down from Descartes, Galileo and the natural philosophers of the early scientific revolution. This you will not find in Newton. What you will find instead is what Einstein, when speaking of the quantum, referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” Motion caused by forces acting on bodies rather than motion on contact of body upon body is not a mechanical theory. Newton himself in the Principia choose, rightly, to frame no hypothesis as to how spooky action at a distance could be made physically intelligible. That meant not only, from its very publication, that the Principia fatally tore asunder the mechanical philosophy but that the picture of nature it presented was incomplete.

Now Crease and Goldhaber do a good job of analysing how what is called Newtonianism, a mechanical and deterministic natural philosophy, came to permeate our culture in so a thoroughgoing way that it was elevated to a metaphysical doctrine transcending physics. Newton could account for not only motion but organs, tissue, politics, economics, indeed just about everything worth knowing.  But in doing this they nonetheless miss the key part of the story, and that can’t but help to affect their reading of the quantum moment. Newton and Newtonianism are not the same, and Newton does not imply Newtonianism. That means the Newtonian moment has little to do with Newton nor the Principia. Rather, Newtonianism was a social and cultural construct developed for reasons other than intrinsically intellectual ones.

Such a rendering naturally invites us to consider the same of the quantum moment. There’s an interesting discussion, and dismissal, of the Forman thesis in the book. This is the thesis that, prior to the development of quantum mechanics, the wider intellectual culture of the German speaking lands began to exhibit an incredulity toward causality and determinism and that, therefore, a cultural paradigm shift preceded quantum mechanics and made quantum mechanics possible. This the authors reject, and it appears that they do so out of concern that it supports something akin to the strong programme in the sociology of science. I don’t see how it does, to paraphrase the logical positivists there’s a difference between the context of discovery and the context of justification. Crease and Goldhaber hold that it wasn’t a cultural quantum leap that led to a scientific version, rather causality went the other way. Physics was transformed for sound intellectual reasons and then, having torn asunder the Newtonian moment, quantum mechanics naturally led to a new quantum moment which came to dominate both our culture and our worldview. The quantum could increasingly be found everywhere not just in the Bohr model. One suspects there’s a good whiff of reductionism at play here. I would support Crease and Goldhaber’s dismissal of the Forman thesis, but not for their reasons. Quantum mechanics and the quantum moment are two different things much as Newton and Newtonianism are. I don’t think culture accounted for the science of the quantum, but I also, unlike Crease and Goldhaber, don’t think the science accounts for the quantum moment. The latter came about, I rather suspect, for its own reasons. That means any explanation of the quantum moment cannot be made dependent upon the science. When understood like so perhaps the considerations of Forman come to possess renewed relevance.

The irony in all that, of course, is that Newton left us with spooky action at a distance and so, in matter of fact, has quantum mechanics. The Quantum Moment is a good first cut in developing a full explanation of how the quantum has become a pervasive metaphysical doctrine. If you have come this far I think you should purchase and read it if you haven’t already done so.

Could we not then conclude that quantum mechanics is incomplete? This is a theme, by no means the central one, of Becker’s What Is Real? This hasn’t received good reviews, I think because they haven’t been much written by philosophers. I quite enjoyed it. The central theme of the book, you might want to argue, isn’t so much the meaning of quantum mechanics as what quantum mechanics means for the philosophy of science. The tug of war between logical positivism and scientific realism with respect to the quantum is well told. We have here a popular rendering of van Fraassen and co. There’s a little bit of irony here too for should quantum mechanics be the basis of a complete theory of nature one would expect it to be employed to settle such debates, yet the book discourages a completeness thesis. Becker draws a strong link, both historical and conceptual, connecting logical positivism to the Copenhagen interpretation. The discussion and elaboration of that link was a strong feature of the narrative, as was the explanation of Bell’s Theorem. Becker is a realist, and thinks the Copenhagen interpretation is not the last word on the matter hence the “unfinished quest” of the subtitle.

For me the business regarding the completion of quantum mechanics was the strongest aspect to the Becker book. The author goes at lengths to illuminate the position Einstein took on this matter. We often regard the experiments of Aspect, Zeilinger and the like as confirming quantum mechanics, especially entanglement and nonlocality, and so disconfirming Einstein’s critique of quantum theory. But as Becker reminds us, as do Crease and Goldhaber, subtle was the lord. Einstein would not have seen these experiments as addressing his fundamental issue with quantum mechanics. No matter how many such experiments are done they will always confirm quantum mechanics, much like experiment after experiment confirmed Newton’s inverse square law. Such experiments, however, do not address the completeness of the theory. No amount of experimentation could provide a definitive test of Newton’s theory explaining the physical mechanism behind the inverse square law because no such theory was offered by Newton to interrogate. No amount of experimentation confirming whatever be the relevant predictions of quantum mechanics settles the question of the physical mechanisms responsible for nonlocality and wavefunction collapse for quantum mechanics provides no theory amenable to experiment. Nonlocality and wavefunction collapse are part of quantum theory but the physical mechanisms behind them are outside of quantum mechanics so therefore quantum mechanics is incomplete. Should a theory of inflation conclude that there’s such a thing as the general increase in the price level of an economy, and how it might be measured to boot, that would be lovely but if it provides no reason why and under what circumstances inflation arises then the theory is incomplete.

Which returns us to quantum gravity, of course. This is often seen as a continuation of Einstein’s quest in his later years to develop a unified, complete, theory of physical reality. In a sense this is true, but only on the proviso that quantum mechanics is complete. Einstein himself, as we know, did not think quantum mechanics to be complete and so what he was searching for was a unified field theory which is not the same as quantum gravity. It seems to me that the ideas of Penrose are as close to those of Einstein in the contemporary era as one can find. Penrose still seeks to travel down the road to quantum gravity,  his is a back road, but for Penrose incorporating gravity makes quantum mechanics complete, in that gravity is needed to explain wavefunction collapse, and so it is not necessarily general relativity that must wholly and only accommodate itself to the quantum. More give and take are required to consummate this marriage than hitherto supposed. The interesting thing about Penrose’s ideas is that spacetime is not taken to be as fundamental as previously thought. There could be something to this. One of the things arising from relativity is a dynamic picture of spacetime. Lorentz contraction, time dilation and so on imply a dynamic hence inherently physical conception of spacetime so perhaps there are more fundamental entities in the physical world that build spacetime. But, then again, perhaps Einstein was right all along. It could be that an entirely new conception of the physical is needed to develop a more complete theory of nature.

I suspect that Einstein was right about that.

Incidentally, Crease and Goldhaber say that the Newtonian moment, what with its machines and mechanisms, supplanted the Aristotelian moment with its goals and purposes. Aristotle was a keen observer of the biological world and his picture of matter to no small degree was organic. For this the modern scientific temper has no truck. But consider. What are living things, even mental things which properly belong to the biological sciences, if not forms of matter? For long I have regarded Darwin’s theory of evolution as incomplete in that it needs to be reduced to physics. There is growing recognition of this, with some physicists arguing that the laws of physics constrain the pathways of self organisation that evolution can take advantage of. I’m thinking now, however, it is not biology with evolution at the core that needs to be reduced to physics. Rather we need a revolution in our understanding of the physical to unify, not reduce, the physical sciences to the biological. If living things exhibit functions, goals and purposes it follows that a property of matter is that it can come to have functions, goals and purposes under certain configurations for reasons unknown. It could well be that such a unification and its attendant transformation in our notions of the physical will lead to renewed interest in Aristotle.

This, finally, brings us to Wittgenstein. When we come across a Wittgenstein or a Grigori Perelman our inclination is to declare them mad, but I wonder whether really it us that are mad. The Monk biography I read long ago and was fortunate to purchase cheaply recently. I have now read it a second time. One of the things that interested me was the manner the relationship between Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell would be portrayed. The Monk biography is largely laudatory of Wittgenstein, much unlike the author’s biography of Russell. You get the impression with Monk that Russell, applicable to both the early and latter Wittgenstein, was too dimwitted to appreciate the subtlety and grace of Wittgenstein’s ideas. But he’s not alone. Russell finds good company in Moore, Turing, Ramsey, among others. I don’t buy it. That said, I think Wittgenstein is on to something when he argues that mathematical philosophy, including all of logicism, finitism-formalism, and intuitionism, is too mathematical. It seems to me the key concern for any philosophy of mathematics should not be foundational nor even be about mathematics as such. Instead the key concern should focus on what mathematics tells us about our relationship to the world, which is an altogether different question. Do we impose mathematics upon the world, or does the world impose mathematics upon us? Dealing with technical questions within mathematics or mathematical logic will tell us little about that and Wittgenstein was right to say so.

My own view is that the work of Frege, Russell, early Wittgenstein, Godel, Turing, Church, but also the prewar logical positivists represent “the heroic years” of 20th century philosophy on a par with the classical years of the early modern era. Certainty was not to be found, and the nature of mathematics is still puzzling and by far a settled matter. Yet this work gave us the tools to embark upon the second cognitive revolution, which might yet shed light on the relationship of mathematics to the world, computer science, information theory and so on. These are signal intellectual achievements and yet we regard philosophy as not progressive.

The major personal difference, according to Monk, between Russell and Wittgenstein was ethical. Should one primarily try and change the world for the better or should one try and change the self for the better? Russell was for the former, Wittgenstein the latter. Surely Russell was correct, and surely that is why Russell is reviled and Wittgenstein regarded as a saint. Monk relates a challenge posed to Wittgenstein by Russell that goes like this; should this commitment come at the expense of war and slavery for the rest would Wittgenstein still be committed to it? He replied in the affirmative. This is an odious view, and Wittgenstein did manage to discover himself as he meant to on the front in the First World War. Pity about the millions who died around him. Wittgenstein did come to hold pronounced left wing views, but he did little to promote them or act upon them in a political fashion. That is contrasted with Russell’s life of dissidence and activism. Despite all that there is something enchanting about Wittgenstein’s continued struggle to be a better person and the manner in which he gave up so much in the course of that struggle, but especially the degree to which he was prepared to be honest with himself as he struggled at it. Wittgenstein lived a rich life.

The second difference drawn between Russell and Wittgenstein was intellectual, especially with regard to the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. Here we have Russell’s well known refrain that the latter Wittgenstein “seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.” What is being denoted by Russell is Wittgenstein’s ideas about the use of language. Monk has this as the central difference between Wittgenstein and those of his interlocutors with whom he most vigorously disagreed such as Russell. There are not so much innovations of thought as there are innovations of language. When Freud proposed a theory of the unconscious he was not providing a theory of the unconscious as a real entity but rather an innovative reconceptualisation of the meaning of the term. The same applies to Cantor and his use of infinity to encompass cardinality or the transfinite. The same applies to the concept number when we introduced imaginary numbers to signify the square root of negative numbers. The key question is whether these innovations are useful not whether they bare a relation to the world. The problems of philosophy become problems of language use. Wittgenstein is best interpreted as saying that the concepts of science are different to our every day concepts, so gravity in physics and gravity of the dictionary have two different meanings. That doesn’t mean that understanding the world does not involve real problems of knowledge rather than merely unravelling the tangles we weave through use of language. Notice that for all Wittgenstein’s influence this hasn’t caught on in epistemology. The knowledge of every day usage and knowledge as to be understood through a scientific theory of knowledge will have two very distinct meanings. Until this is recognised the prospects for epistemology appear dim. The reader might regard my take on Aristotle above to be another example of the species. It is evident that Wittgenstein’s ideas on language use are relevant to the way concepts are used in quantum physics as opposed to their usage in the cultural quantum moment.

Wittgenstein had very little interest in science, which is well contrasted to Russell’s attitude. Russell in his thinking, especially his latter philosophy, was quite attuned to the contemporaneous results of the sciences as any good philosopher should be. Disdain for scientific inquiry is not an intellectual virtue and we like to see Wittgenstein as especially intellectually pious. Such disdain is a marker of contemporary philosophy, but it wasn’t of the early modern period nor of the heroic years. It is true that Wittgenstein was the more influential philosopher but that’s not to say that he was a better philosopher, and this fact tells us more about ourselves than it does about the ideas of Russell. One aspect, highly important for us too, where Russell and Wittgenstein had some similarity regarding science was its impact upon society. Wittgenstein was concerned that science and scientific industry would lead to the destruction of civilisation. Russell, through his anti nuclear activism and dissidence, held similar views but it would be wrong to see them as being in accord with Wittgenstein’s. For Wittgenstein there was something intrinsic to science that threatens the good future of man. For Russell it was the pursuit of science under certain cultural, social and historical conditions that threatens the good future of humanity. Wittgenstein’s views here too have proved more influential among those who think about such problems, but it is Russell who is correct.

The header image was taken at Mallacoota, a remote, sparsely populated wonder of nature where water, both salty and fresh, the forest, and a rich diversity of life conjoin. Of Wittgenstein I read there, and the themes of the two earlier reviewed works I contemplated, among much else besides, while ensconced in the wilderness. Wittgenstein was on to something with the fjords of Norway. He would have been revolted to have learnt that tours are organised to the remains of his hut at Skjolden, and the fact that they are tells us something about why Wittgenstein has been so influential. Surely, he would have been disappointed to know of this for one gets the distinct impression that Wittgenstein would have liked to be remembered for his ideas rather than the way he lived.

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Washington Announces Intent to Withdraw from the INF Treaty

The United States has formally given notice that it will withdrawal from the INF Treaty in 60 days unless, in the interim, Russia returns to full compliance with the Treaty. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, in response announced that Russia will no longer engage with the United States on the matter. Unless something arrives from out of left field that just about wraps it up for the INF Treaty. I’m sure its comprehensive history will make for a nice PhD thesis or two and that with a nice sense of closure, so at least all is not lost.

The formal notice of US intent to withdraw was publicly made by Mike Pompeo in a US State Department press statement. In that statement Pompeo repeats the charge that Russia is in “material breach” of the Treaty. President Trump also released a press statement available at the White House website. The US position is that Russia’s alleged violation of the Treaty is not a mere technical violation of its terms. It is possible to breach a treaty’s terms but for that not necessarily to constitute a material breach. For example, the Soviet Union was in breach of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty when it was working on developing the Krasnoyarsk radar but that breach was not a material breach. Is Russia in material breach of the INF Treaty? Let us return to this question in due course.

The formal announcement has provoked a lot of commentary and media attention, with one of the more common refrains being that the looming withdrawal will set off a renewed nuclear arms race. I do not share those views. Rather, the likely end of the INF Treaty represents a further development in an arms race already off and running. We are heading toward waters we would have sailed had not Mikhail Gorbachev, in my opinion one of history’s more important figures, burst onto the scene in the and those waters are not smooth. The announcement has come not long after the release of the Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review, which calls for qualitative and quantitative augmentation of missile defence, Russia’s successful test of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle from an ICBM, a reported test of Russia’s Nudol direct ascent anti satellite missile, and America’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s announcement that it has began production of the low yield (usually given as a third the yield of Little Boy so ~4KT) W76-2 warhead for the Trident II SLBM. The latter threatens to lower the threshold of nuclear war as it appears based on the misplaced view that escalation can be controlled and that low yields make for rationally more usable nuclear weapons, especially in regional contingencies of the type involving North Korea or Iran.

China has also released a video depicting a military exercise involving the DF-26 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (i.e. INF Treaty range) often dubbed “the Guam killer.”

There’s a good Chinese TV report on the DF-26 exercise available on YouTube here.

Vladimir Putin has been reported in the Russian media as saying that Moscow, following a US withdrawal from the INF, will develop a land based variant of the 3M14 Kalibr sea launched cruise missile with a range greater than 500km and less than 5500 (3M14 Kalibr has a 2500km range), the US allegation of course is that Russia already has a GLCM outside INF Treaty limits ie the 9M729 (or SSC-8), and a ground launched version of the hypersonic R-500 or 3M22 ‘”Tsirkon” or “Zircon” cruise missile also to a range otherwise prohibited by the INF Treaty. The Tsirkon reportedly has a range of 1000km. Other reports claim that Putin has stated Russia will not develop these systems unless the US first develops INF prohibited systems and deploys them in Europe. Moscow’s claims regarding US violations of the INF are spurious.

It seems to me that one key source of our troubles is that the military-industrial complexes of the world’s major strategic powers are increasingly beyond popular control. To the extent that is true the renewed arms race is, fundamentally, a reflection upon the state of democracy. As we know substantive democracy has been under assault over the last 30 years, and one of the effects of this appears to be a greater level of influence and autonomy for the military-industrial complexes. This is a matter requiring further study, reflection and action. Certainly, for example, a decision of such moment as the future of the INF Treaty should be based on as much dissemination of information into the public sphere as possible and that by both sides. In a democracy rational decisions are made when a fully informed public is offered the opportunity to make reasoned choices.  But that isn’t what we have seen with the INF Treaty. Rather, we are heading toward the end of a key Cold War era arms control agreement with the minimal of information being presented to the public. Such things cannot be permissible in democratic societies.

I get the, tentative, impression that the way the INF affair has played out suggests the end of the Treaty is something that both Russia and America have tacitly agreed to.  We have, for example, the minimal information alluded to above. If both sides wanted to save the INF Treaty, then the INF Treaty would have been saved. If one side wanted to save it, but the other not then that side ought to have gone the extra mile to provide as much transparency as the situation allows. The United States hasn’t provided much by way of information. Russia has, in drips and drabs, provided progressively more but certainly not enough to establish its claim to be in accord with the Treaty. Much greater effort would have gone into providing transparency regarding claim and counter claim if both sides, indeed even if only one side, wanted to preserve the Treaty. That both Moscow and Washington tacitly agreed to end the Treaty thereby becomes, at the very least, a reasonable hypothesis. I’d be surprised if at least some strategic planners in Beijing haven’t reached this conclusion.

In a major press briefing and information session for military attaches, not long before the formal announcement of US withdrawal, Russia provided the most information to date on the 9M729 missile which, seemingly, is at the centre of the INF dispute. The Russian analyst, Pavel Podvig, continues to have the most informed and detailed commentary on the INF Treaty dispute and his analysis of the briefing is available here.

Moscow showed off a drawing of the 9M729 missile alongside the 9M728 ground launched cruise missile, the launch tube of the 9M729 missile, the TEL for the 9M729, and a table of  missile test launches from 2008 to 2014 at the Kapustin Yar test facility. Previously it had been reported that the 9M729 missile had a length of 8m. The 9M729 container has a length of 7.93m, 0.53m more than the 9M728 which has a maximum range of 490km (nobody alleges that it isn’t INF compliant.) According to the renderings the 9M729 has a larger warhead and a larger modernised guidance component than the 9M728 but the same propulsion system. The table asserts that all tests at Kapustin Yar of surface-to-surface missiles, bar ICBM tests, during the 2008-2014 period were in accord with the INF Treaty. Washington, recall, alleges that Russia tested the 9M729 cruise missile during that time period from a fixed launcher to a range prohibited by the treaty.

A drawing, of course, is not the same as an inspection of the missile and a rendering with a larger warhead and a larger guidance system seems for many to be a convenient contrivance. The Kalibr family of cruise missiles is of modular design, so it is possible, but why develop a missile with the same range as the 9M728 but with a bigger warhead and a more sophisticated guidance package has not been made clear. The briefing does not establish the Russian position, but the United States has ignored it and hasn’t provided any further information of its own. The position of the Trump administration has been that it will accept nothing less than a Russian confession and a return to full compliance with the Treaty. That said, if the briefing is accurate it would provide evidence of the Russian military-industrial complex wrangling out of the political system a missile that marginally adds to Moscow’s strategic capabilities.

As noted China released a video of a missile exercise featuring the DF-26 IRBM. There are two variants of the DF-26, a land attack variant and an antiship variant. The exercise video provided detail not seen before and featured a take away of fins on the RV, for greater terminal phase stability (so accuracy) and suggestive also of a MaRV or manoeuvrable warhead. The DF-26 exercise was accompanied by much commentary about the purported terminal phase capability of the DF-26 in particular its ability to incorporate updated real time information from multiple sensor suits to strike moving targets like an aircraft carrier strike group (I’ll ignore the obvious temptation to waffle about the nature of knowledge at this point i.e. would that mean the DF-26 knows where a carrier strike group is). Such claims are likely overstated but the dual conventional and nuclear capable DF-26 can hold at risk military targets on Guam, a key operating base in what China calls Washington’s second island chain of military operating bases dedicated, according to Beijing, to China’s containment. Beijing, furthermore, sees Guam as important to the Pentagon’s implementing, if necessary, the AirSea Battle concept (akin to NATO’s AirLand Battle of the 1980s). President Trump in his White House statement linked above stated that; “We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other.” When Donald Trump first announced an intent to walk from the INF as much, if not more, emphasis was placed on Asia (read China) than Europe. According to a New York Times article Washington planners are considering deploying land based intermediate range missiles in Asia.

…The question now is whether the United States will begin to deploy new weapons to counter China’s efforts to cement a dominant position in the Western Pacific and keep American aircraft carriers at bay. Much of Beijing’s growing arsenal currently consists of missiles that fall into the ranges — land-based missiles able to fly 300 to 3,400 miles — that are prohibited by the treaty…

Guam offers a good place to deploy land based intermediate range missiles in Asia as it frees Washington from possible alliance concerns about deploying them on their territory.

Critics, correctly, argue that air and sea launched standoff weapons can provide a direct response to the DF-26 and that in a way which also can obviate any possible allied constraints on their use in contingencies involving China. For example, air launched and submarine launched cruise missiles can be deployed from Guam. But when you read the article carefully you can see that an old Cold War era line is being trotted out to justify deploying land based intermediate range missiles aimed at China. The objective, Trump administration figures are claiming, is to develop a global INF Treaty, or at the very least one that includes China, but to do that Washington needs to develop a bargaining chip to trade away in an arms control negotiating process. Moreover, deploying ground based intermediate missiles in Asia provides negotiators a position of strength from which they can extract concessions. That is precisely on a par with the, false, claim that the Reagan era deployment of the Tomahawk GLCM and the Pershing II IRBM spooked the Soviet Union into agreeing to the INF Treaty in the first place (i.e. Reagan’s preferred “double zero.”) If you want to believe all that you can, but I should say that such arguments were made by the military-industrial complex to justify weapons systems during the Cold War era arms race. Recall the point made above regarding unconstrained military-industrial complexes.

The United States, tacit agreement or not, is saying to Russia the following. You, Russia, are no longer our competitor. You are a great power lost to history, thump your bare chest in the ice much as you like, indeed you’re at most a regional power to use the expression describing Russia in the Missile Defense Review. We regard a rising China to be our peer (or near peer) competitor and we won’t be constrained by a Cold War era arms control agreement with a has been state as we engage in strategic competition with Beijing. That competition will shape the future of the world. It’s that message that stings in Moscow. John Bolton, as well as others close to or part of the Trump administration, were noted as arguing during the Bush II era that arms control agreements are relics of a time when the system of world order was different, and so the colossus should not be bound by them as it shapes and moulds world order as required. This message to Moscow is entirely consistent with that world view.

In which case the 9M729, whatever be its range capabilities, is not the missile at the centre of the INF saga. That status would belong to the DF-26.

Incidentally. Let us assume that the United States does announce the intention to develop land based intermediate range missiles to be deployed in Asia or Guam specifically. That would mean Washington would be working to deploy more usable W76-2 warheads for Trident SSBNs on patrol in the Pacific. It would mean that it would be developing ground based intermediate range missiles in Asia to boot. Oh, and not only will this compel China to join a new multipolar INF Treaty but North Korea will engage in final, fully verified denuclearisation at the same time.

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Hans Blix Redux: US Wants Full Declaration of North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Plants for the Second Kim-Trump Summit

A recent interview by John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, for The Washington Times contained a line on North Korea that has been compared to the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq

…What we need from North Korea is a significant sign of a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons and it is when we get that denuclearization that the President can begin to take the sanctions off…

Usage of the expression “strategic decision” has been compared to the Iraq invasion as it was a demand Bush II officials often made of Saddam Hussein. That is, Baghdad had to demonstrate tangible evidence that it had made a strategic decision to dismantle its (by then we now know largely nonexistient) weapons of mass destruction programme.

However, a much better direct link connecting the remarks of Bolton today to the Bolton of yesteryear can be found when considering what that North Korean strategic decision Bolton envisages to be. According to a report in The Korea Times

… The United States wants North Korea to provide a list of its secret uranium enrichment facilities as a key prerequisite in exchange for possibly easing of economic sanctions, a Cheong Wa Dae official said Sunday.

“Washington wants a list of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment facilities and secret nuclear weapons sites during the upcoming second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” the official said…

On December 07 2002 Iraq provided a 12,000 page declaration of its, mostly, historical WMD and related programmes to the United Nations. Under UNSC Resolution 1441 of November 2002 Iraq was to provide “a currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems.” Failure to provide such a declaration or providing a false and misleading declaration, UNSC 1441 goes on to say, would constitute a “material breach” of Iraq’s obligations.

In a January 2003 press briefing, two months prior to the invasion toward which the US was already committed so in essence an act of aggression, Bolton stated that Iraq

…was obligated under Resolution 1441 to make a declaration of the weapons of mass destruction, the production facilities, the dual-use items that it has and it failed to do so. The December 7 Iraqi Declaration is false and misleading. It contains material omissions and misrepresentations…

Bolton was not the only Bush administration official to say this, and the charge of a material breach was one of the pillars supporting the, false and misleading, case for war made at the time. That charge was made on the prevailing assumption that Iraq continued to possess a WMD programme and so a declaration largely historical in nature was “false and misleading.” But we know to whom that charge is more accurately attributed. One could go so far as to say that the purpose of the declaration was always to claim an Iraqi material breach of UN resolutions. Therefore, the purpose of the declaration perhaps wasn’t so much to get an accurate and verifiable declaration but rather to develop a rationale for an invasion based on other, non WMD related, ends.

Since the Singapore summit one of the dominant narratives in the Western media, certainly in the US media overwhelmingly in the liberal media, has been that North Korea is engaging in subterfuge and has undeclared missile operating bases and, crucial for our context, undeclared uranium enrichment plants. The picture of a false and misleading North Korea post Singapore is by now well entrenched. This 38North analysis by Daniel Depetris of the dominant storyline is excellent, and should be read by all interested in the denuclearisation talks. Of the last three major stories in that vein, two have come from the Beyond Parallel project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The lead figure behind those reports was Victor Cha, a Bush administration official alongside John Bolton and a noted neocon (to use that all embracing and misleading expression).

Remember that CNBC report on clandestine North Korean uranium enrichment plants, and the subsequent, apparent, discovery of one of those enrichment plants at Chollima? Here’s the key extract from that CNBC report

… The network cited U.S. officials as saying that the intelligence assessment concludes that North Korea has more than one secret nuclear site in addition to its known nuclear fuel production facility at Yongbyon…

I say “apparent” because the status of Kangson as an enrichment facility is disputed. The report claims US intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea seeks to keep some of its uranium enrichment facilities undisclosed even after it makes a declaration purporting to be full and complete.

In 2010 North Korea showed off a uranium enrichment facility at its main nuclear research and production facility at Yongbyon to a foreign delegation which included Siegfried Hecker a former Los Alamos director. Hecker reported seeing a modern, well maintained and functioning enrichment plant. Hecker revealed that the facility housed 2000 P2 centrifuges (P2 as in Pakistan 2 of AQ Khan provenance itself based on the URENCO G2) in six cascades. CNBC reported US intelligence officials as saying that North Korea has at least 3 sites possibly more (more than one of those secret) assuming Kangson constitutes one of the 3.

An interesting question becomes; does the US just know of the existence of publicly undisclosed enrichment facilities or does the US know of the existence and the location, including operating parameters, of publicly undisclosed enrichment facilities? According to the source behind The Korea Times article cited previously the US has called for North Korea to provide a verifiable declaration of its enrichment activities because it wants to “get details on the country’s uranium enrichment facilities.”

The revealing of the enrichment facility in 2010 at Yongbyon, and the evident speed with which it was constructed, provided firm evidence for the long held suspicion that North Korea has an undisclosed pilot enrichment facility. The Kangson plant has been attributed a start up date of 2003, i.e. when the US invaded Iraq so that pilot facility surely predates 2003. In September last year Iran announced that it was near completing a facility at Natanz to produce advanced centrifuges with greater separative capacity than the IR2 centrifuge their version of the P2, a process it has by now completed. Iran claims that it can produce IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges and aspires to develop an IR-8 centrifuge.

The, almost universal, assumption hitherto has been that the P2 is the only centrifuge that North Korea has. Reasonable given what is known of the facility at Yongbyon and the size of the facility at Chollima. But if Iran is developing more advanced centrifuges, why not North Korea which has much more experience with uranium enrichment? More advanced centrifuges have greater separative capacity so the footprint, and power requirements, of an enrichment plant housing centrifuges more advanced than the P2 are lower. A gas centrifuge enrichment plant dedicated to producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons has a much lower footprint than an industrial scale plant designed for a nuclear energy programme. That means there’s a good strategic rationale for Pyongyang to work on advanced centrifuges. North Korea could have achieved a type of breakout capacity with its enrichment programme and so it has been able to develop enrichment facilities that have passed undetected by national technical means of verification.

So, perhaps, the US knows or suspects based on credible information through human sources that North Korea has at least one clandestine enrichment plant beyond Kangson but cannot locate given that it’s, or they’re, less conspicuous than a plant consisting of P2 centrifuges. Therein lies a dilemma for North Korea. John Bolton is calling for a disclosure of its uranium enrichment facilities at or arising from the upcoming second Kim-Trump summit as evidence of a strategic decision to embark upon disarmament. Pyongyang knows how many enrichment plants it has but it doesn’t know what Washington knows about its enrichment facilities. Given the uncertainty the incentive would be to make a full and complete declaration, yet Washington is offering, at best, partial lifting of sanctions. Should Pyongyang think a partial and easily reversible easing of sanctions warrants agreeing to a full and complete declaration, but in reality only deserving the making of a partial declaration taking the bet Washington doesn’t know what it knows, then Bolton could well end up in the position to say, like he did before the Iraq invasion, that North Korea is in material breach of its obligations. Thus far, of course, North Korea has not been obligated to declare anything.

North Korea has been reluctant to provide a declaration of its nuclear capabilities post Singapore, just as the US has been reluctant to provide a declaration of the end of the Korean War. It appears Trump did pledge to provide such a declaration at Singapore. Pyongyang has stated that providing a declaration of its nuclear capabilities would be to give US planners a target list and that during a diplomatic process that could readily collapse. Perhaps so, although it may well be the case that is not North Korea’s concern, or is not the only major concern.

What North Korea remembers is what we have forgotten. Kim Jong-un might well think that Bolton, and other hardliners in the Trump White House, could use a declaration to pronounce North Korea in material breach of its obligations to scuttle the denuclearisation talks which they’ve never particularly liked. It could well be the case that this is a play Bolton and others are trying to set up for the second summit. As noted previously the narrative in the US is already dominated by alleged North Korean breaches of its obligations where the matters of disclosure and declarations are front and centre.

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Dissuasion and the Logical Fallacy in Trump’s Missile Defense Review

The Trump administration has finally released its long anticipated, and long delayed, Missile Defense Review.  The Review itself contains a little fossil that hints at a tortuous drafting and redrafting process. At page 44 the MD Review states; “a network of SKA sensors will be placed on orbit by the end of 2018.” That is a reference to the space based kill assessment programme which consists of a network of small sensors on commercial satellites. The way that sentence is structured suggests we have an early fossil too. The Nuclear Posture Review was released in February 2018 and it was expected that the BMD Review (the B is dropped now for reasons that will become clearer) would be completed and released around that time as well. The earliest expected date was late 2017. The Kim-Trump summit at Singapore occurred in June 2018.

This sentence appears to be a fossil from a version of the MD Review written before that summit i.e. before June 2018.  This little fossil suggests the MD Review has undergone an interesting process of evolution shaped by the external political environment especially the bilateral denuclearisation talks with North Korea and the shellacking Trump received in the midterm elections (no bucks, no Buck Rogers).

Upon the release of the MD Review President Trump stated, among other things

Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

…Our strategy is grounded in one overriding objective: to detect and destroy every type of missile attack against any American target, whether before or after launch…

…Regardless of the missile type or the geographic origins of the attack, we will ensure that enemy missiles find no sanctuary on Earth or in the skies above…

…My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer.  It’s new technology.  It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense

There are two ways that you can read those Reagan type remarks. They can be taken as hyperbolic bullshit or as aspirations. I’d take them as both. The Missile Defense Review itself does not call for a Star Wars type missile defence system that would render missiles “impotent and obsolete,” although that said it did say the US would not accept limitations, either qualitative or quantitative, on its missile defence capabilities. Trump’s statement is hyperbolic to the extent that it both greatly exaggerates the contents of the Review and what missile defence technology can physically do. The best repost to this hyperbole is Richard Feynman’s refrain, made when investigating the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, “for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” This is why missile defence has always had a flexible empirical testing regime and why this Review further reinforces that flexible testing regime. When you can’t fool nature the obvious response is to change the empirical goal posts, like with string theorists (of whom Feynman was an early critic), so you can at least fool everybody else especially those paying for the exercise. That said, the statement is aspirational to the extent that the Missile Defense Review is a step toward reviving the full blown version of Reagan’s Star Wars which would require explicitly working toward developing a missile defence capability addressing relatively large first strike missile attacks from both Russia and China, a vision inhibited by, at the very least, current technology and the wider political context.

That brings us back to the fossil, for fossils are originally laid down in times when the environment was different. What did the Review look like in drafts written prior to the denuclearisation talks and Trump’s midterm shellacking? We do not know.

That’s a long segue into something else that I want to write about. The Missile Defense Review emphasises defending against missiles (including cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles so hence the dropping of the B as in Ballistic) in all phases of their flight, including boost phase defence, and defeat (both kinetic and nonkinetic) of missiles prior to launch labelled as “left of launch” capabilities. Toward that end the Review emphasises both the upgrading of existing capabilities and the development of new capabilities. In so far as the latter goes, the items discussed in the Review that have attracted the most commentary and analysis are developing a new interceptor for boost phase interception to be launched from modified F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, working toward Unmanned Aerial Vehicle deployed compact high energy lasers for boost phase interception, a layer of space based sensors to augment Earth bound sensors, and space based interception. These capabilities are discussed in the Review because it argues that the missile defence mission must recognise the threat environment has changed since the 2010 BMD Review. This is a central claim made in the 2019 Missile Defense Review. It is indeed “the fundamental starting point” of the Review

This 2019 MDR also emphasizes that the missile threat environment now calls for a comprehensive approach to missile defense against rogue state and regional missile threats.  This approach integrates offensive and defensive capabilities for deterrence, and includes active defense to intercept missiles in all phases of flight after launch, passive defense to mitigate the effects of missile attack, and attack operations during a conflict to neutralize offensive missile threats prior to launch

The new threat environment is directly linked to the new missile defence concept (i.e. dropping the B) and the expanded capabilities outlined in the Review

The United States will develop innovative approaches and new technologies that stay ahead of the rapid advances in rogue states’ offensive missile threats to the U.S. homeland and provide the needed defense against regional missile threats. To do so, DoD will increase investments in and deploy new technologies and concepts, and adapt existing weapons systems to field new capabilities rapidly at lower cost

The Review develops an analysis of that new threat environment by discussing the growing missile strike capabilities of North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China both collectively and individually. This is not the time for a review of that discussion, although I should note that in just about every instance (bar North Korea) an undefended inference from capabilities to doctrine is made.

In the case of Iran, that goes from Iran’s missile capabilities to a categorical statement that they show Iran seeks to achieve hegemony in the Middle East. Yet, a more realistic and sober reading is that Iran’s missile programme is for deterrence not hegemony. China, by the same token, is investing in upgraded and new missile strike capabilities because Beijing seeks hegemony in the IndoPacific and so therefore desires the capability to dislodge the US from the region. That’s an unsupported inferential leap that does not follow from a consideration of capabilities alone. Russia too has revisionist geopolitical ambitions and its investment in growing missile strike capabilities follows from this and is on a par with Moscow’s supposed “escalate-to-deescalate” nuclear strategy. All these inferential leaps are contestable, in fact I would say they are unwarranted. With regard to North Korea the assertion that it has not yet completed the development of a capability to credibly threaten the US homeland with a nuclear armed long range missile strike has been repeated. That too is contestable.

This brings us back to topic. One of the key doctrinal concepts that has been used in support of missile defence has been “dissuasion.” This strategic concept was first formally articulated by the George W Bush administration. This is how dissuasion was outlined in the controversial 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America

Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States

It’s a bit like me wanting to go up against Usain Bolt in a 100m dash. Why bother? To bother would be irrational.

Ballistic missile defence was a key part of this. The Bush II administration publicly released mere excerpts from its Nuclear Posture Review. Here’s one of those excerpts on missile defence and dissuasion

“Defenses can make it more arduous and costly for an adversary to compete militarily with or wage war against the United States. The demonstration of a range of technologies and systems for missile defense can have a dissuasive effect on potential adversaries. The problem of countering missile defenses, especially defensive systems with multiple layers, presents a potential adversary with the prospect of a difficult, time-consuming and expensive undertaking”

The Trump 2019 Missile Defense Review quotes the Obama administration’s 2010 BMD Review to the same affect

There is bipartisan recognition of the potential role missile defense can play in dissuading rogue states from pursuing ICBMs. The 2010 BMDR noted that through the U.S. commitment to missile defense, “the United States seeks to dissuade [rogue] states from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile

The Trump Review goes on to repeat this claim regarding dissuasion

As U.S. missile defense capabilities improve to stay ahead of missile threats, they may also help dissuade missile proliferation among potential adversaries by reducing the value of their investments in ballistic and cruise missiles as effective instruments of coercion or war. If so, this dissuasive effect, together with other counterproliferation measures such as sanctions, will contribute to U.S. diplomatic efforts to limit proliferation, assure allies, and hedge against future missile threats

And therein lies a key fallacy in the Missile Defense Review. The Review states that there is a new threat environment because rogue states and revisionist powers (read Russia and China) are developing more advanced missile strike capabilities. That is, furthermore, “the fundamental starting point” of the Review. That’s why missile defence must further evolve toward boost phase interception, toward defeat not just defence, toward space and so on. But, alas, missile defence was supposed to dissuade that new threat environment from coming to be in the first place.

Missile defence dissuades rogue states and revisionist powers from investing in qualitatively and quantitatively expanding missile capabilities. Rogue states and revisionist powers nonetheless invest in growing missile capabilities. A new missile threat environment thereby has emerged. Missile defence dissuades rogue states and revisionist powers from investing in qualitatively and quantitatively augmented missile capabilities. Missile defence therefore must expand in scope and scale given the new threat environment in order to dissuade further augmentation of missile strike capabilities against the United States.

The fallacy should be clear.

Of course, the Trump statement is more cautious than the Obama statement it cites. It uses expressions such as “may also help dissuade” and “if so” that are qualified. There’s good reason for this, given the obvious fallacy at work here. The fallacy becomes worse still upon realisation that the new threat environment, in part, is precisely a direct result of missile defence. For example, Russia’s research and development programme on hypersonic glide vehicles and nuclear propelled cruise missiles are, partly, Moscow’s long term response to BMD.

The qualifiers obscure a more fundamental point that goes right to the heart of missile defence advocacy. One would expect a rational adversary to be dissuaded from developing missile strike capabilities to the extent that missile defence works as advertised. The logic is the same as the Usain Bolt example. Bolt can run 100m in less than 10secs. I know that to be the case, so I am dissuaded from challenging him to a race for no matter how hard I try I know that I cannot match him. Dissuasion does not work, but if missile defence works one would expect missile defence to dissuade a rational adversary. Either North Korea, Iran, Russia and China are irrational, in which case both deterrence and dissuasion are neither here nor there, or missile defence does not work to the extent that its proponents would have us believe.

Surely dissuasion is fallacious because missile defence does not work as well as its advocates have been claiming and, what’s more, Moscow and the rest know this to be true (which then says a lot about Putin’s hyperbolic rhetoric on the topic).

There’s an element of the irrational and absurd at work on missile defence that is best resolved through an analysis of the needs, interests and concerns of respective, both putative defender and attacker, military-aerospace-industrial complexes.

We should always remind ourselves of Feynman’s refrain cited above for the situation with missile defence can be no better encapsulated; “for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

This is related to an even more well known Feynman truism which missile defence amply confirms. Nature cannot be fooled, true, but we are the easiest to fool.

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