Nuclear Barbarossa: Sowing Instability and Running the Risk of War is the Object of Trump’s Iran Policy.

The sowing of instability is the very purpose of the Trump administration’s policy on Iran. I would like to make some remarks about that which I wasn’t able to do in my last post given the focus was elsewhere. I think this is important because a lot of critical analysis in the mainstream adopts the view that rising instability in the Persian Gulf is a consequence of Trump’s foolhardy policy, rather than its very object.

Before we proceed, I should point out, according to a Reuters news report on an upcoming IAEA Report on Iran’s nuclear activities, that Iran is feeding UF6 into IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges at Natanz but not into its two 30 machine IR-6 cascades. The Europeans have stated that the latter would be a “redline.” To my mind this further demonstrates the hitherto calibrated and reversible phased response of Iran to the massive violations of Annex II of the JCPOA and the failure of the Europeans, thus far, to ensure the integrity of this Annex to the Agreement.

Before unleashing Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler stated to the high command of the Wehrmacht; “We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down.”

That sentiment I think has more than a little to do with Iran, but also North Korea I should add. When the US goes hard against Iran and North Korea it does so not because of concerns about nuclear proliferation. Rather, Washington uses concerns about nuclear proliferation to engage in a policy of graduated escalation of pressure with the view to affecting regime change. That policy is based on an optimistic assessment of the propensity of the regime in Iran to collapse. So, “we have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down.” Escalating pressure on Iranian society will compel Iranians to take to the streets and overthrow the regime in Tehran in a second Iranian revolution. When the edifice comes tumbling down Washington need only extend the basket and collect the ripe geopolitical fruits.

Creating instability in the region, but also within Iran through economic sanctions, serves this end. The idea is to create stability by creating instability where stability refers to the crafting of a pliant region subordinate to US power and preferences. Stability does not mean stability as it’s used in an everyday sense. The JCPOA provided for stability as per normal usage but not in terms of Washington speak. I would argue that this too has been a major assumption of policy on North Korea. The regime will inevitably collapse, and Pyongyang’s nuclear programme can be used to hasten that process along through a graduated escalation of economic, diplomatic, and strategic pressure.

But, of course, the other side will respond to this and it responds, in part, by expanding its nuclear activities. In the case of North Korea this led to a working ICBM armed with a deliverable hydrogen bomb targeting US cities. What it will lead to in Iran’s case is uncertain, but every escalation Tehran makes in its nuclear activities is evidently greeted with euphoria by the Trump administration.

This all does indeed sow instability in the region, as it is meant to, and this can indeed get out of control so much so that it leads to some form of military conflict with Iran if only through inadvertence. It almost led to nuclear war with North Korea in 2017 and it might do so again in 2020. My own view is that a good deal of the diplomatic impasse regarding North Korea is not because Pyongyang does not want to disarm and Trump, if not his administration, does not understand this, rather the old assumption about the inevitably of North Korea’s collapse continues to drive policy. Keep the pressure on and the juicy geopolitical fruits in Northeast Asia will fall into Washington’s basket. There isn’t much North Korea can do about this because it’s deterred from nuclear adventurism by Trump’s bigger button.

In both cases the risk of conflict is high, but that’s beside the point. Don’t forget Hitler’s refrain was made to calm concerns the German high command had about an escalation of the war, which they viewed as being too risky for Germany. The hawks in Washington appear convinced that kicking in the door will make both Iran and North Korea collapse. That means running the risk of war is worth the candle. The German foreign minister is reported today as saying Europe should consider renewing sanctions on Iran, which would end the JCPOA. For their part Iran and North Korea too think manipulating risk is the best way to respond to this leaving two sides manipulating external perceptions of risk through a graduated process of escalation. How that’ll end nobody knows, but that’s the very idea. We do know how imperial Japan responded when the squeeze was put on Tokyo before Pearl Harbour.

This of course is all quite insane but that’s reasons of state for you. One wonders what affect climate change has on things like this. As the view that dangerous climate change is inevitable takes hold, through wilful inaction, in the chancelleries of the world would that mean states would have a greater propensity to run nuclear risks in the meantime? That is, let us grab as much as we can while we can and who cares about the probable consequences for civilisation is doomed anyway? I think we’re, in a way, seeing this already in the Arctic. This definitely requires a separate, more detailed and considered, write up.

Remember how the rotten door theory went down the first time should the nuclear crises with both Iran and North Korea escalate in 2020. Germany’s cities were left in ruins, and Hitler’s Wunderwaffe didn’t save them either I might add.

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First as Tragedy, Twice as Farce: Decoding Iran’s Resumption of Enrichment at Fordow and Advanced Centrifuge R&D at Natanz.

It’s said even the best laid of plans go awry, and alas the plan was to write up about North Korea’s last KN-25 MLRS/guided tactical missile flight test prior to moving on to other topics. However, this week’s developments regarding the situation with Iran and the JCPOA have put paid to those plans. I should say, at any rate, there is a connection here to North Korea which is where we’ll conclude this post.

The Iran crisis is a direct function of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA on the most spurious grounds. So much so that “the Iran crisis” or “the Iranian nuclear crisis” and the like are deeply misleading labels. What we have is a generalised “Trump crisis” of which the situation with the JCPOA is a specific part.

Iran this week announced three reversals of its commitments under the JCPOA. Firstly, the introduction of another 30 IR-6 advanced gas centrifuge cascade at Natanz making a total of 63 IR-6s installed in total (another 30 machine cascade and a standalone cascade of 3). Secondly, the announcement of advanced work on a new IR-9 centrifuge with a reported 50 SWU kg per year separation capacity (50 times more powerful than the IR-1) and today’s news, which has attracted a lot of attention, that Iran will begin to enrich uranium at Fordow. The last has made a bigger splash than the first two, however I submit the action should be with the more advanced centrifuges.

These moves were well telegraphed in advance. They didn’t just come out of nowhere.  On May 8 Iran announced it would reduce its commitments under the JCPOA at bimonthly intervals and on October 31 the Iranian foreign ministry stated it would take its fourth step in early November. On October 8 Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, stated Iran in the coming period would introduce another 30 IR-6 centrifuge cascade at Natanz, which meant this was always going to be part of the fourth step. What we’ve seen this week is the graduated unveiling of that fourth step.

According to the reports I’ve seen Iran has announced each of these moves are reversible. So, what we are seeing here is a carefully calibrated process of incremental escalation to compel the Europeans to cushion the blow of US economic sanctions, the snapback of which are massive violations of the JCPOA. The Europeans have agreed to do this as a remaining party to the JCPOA but have thus far not delivered on their end of the bargain. When reading mainstream media reporting on the JCPOA you are left with the impression that it consists of only one Annex, the Nuclear Related Measures Annex. However, there are more for example we have in addition Annex Two Sanctions Related Measures. Both these annexes are the guts of the Agreement, not just the first nuclear related alone.

The snapback of economic sanctions, including secondary boycotts that use the special position of US capital markets in the global economic system, have had a significant impact on the Iranian economy. According to the IMF Iranian GDP will decline by 9.5% for 2019, higher than the 6% forecasted, which is a massive recession by any measure. According to the IMF world oil prices would need to hit $194.6 a barrel for Iran to balance its budget. The IMF forecasts that Iran’s economy will stabilise next year, but that’s predicated on there being no additional measures taken against it. This week President Trump announced new financial sanctions against Iran. Washington will, most likely, continue to put the squeeze on. The above linked Reuters report on the IMF study states, “the IMF forecast Iran’s exports of goods and services to drop to $60.3 billion this year from $103.2 billion last year, and to fall further to $55.5 billion in 2020.” The Europeans are not compensating Iran for this massive external shock to its economy, as they have pledged to do. That’s why Iran has adopted a policy of phased reduction in its commitments to Annex One of the JCPOA. It’s an escalatory process to compel the remaining parties to the JCPOA to ensure Annex Two remains in effect.

The Iranians have claimed each of their phased measures, including the phase four measures, are reversible (a point to which we return). Now consider some of the reported effects the snapback of sanctions has had on Iranian society. According to a Human Rights Watch Report those sanctions “have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.” Further, “While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch found that in practice these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods.” When you read the Human Rights Watch report you get the distinct impression these humanitarian impacts are intended. That makes them, quite simply, crimes against humanity. Should a sick person die as a result that would make for an irreversible affect of Washington’s massive violation of the JCPOA.

Although the corporate media is awash with Iran’s calibrated reduction of its commitments under the JCPOA the effects of the far more significant violations of Annex Two go largely unreported.  The differences between Tehran’s actions and Washington’s are beyond comparison, and this is a small example of the corporate media’s servility in the Trump era. Both Trump’s worshippers and his liberal critics labour under the illusion the corporate media has taken an implacably hostile stance toward the Trump administration.

That said, let’s take a wee look at Iran’s phase four reduction of its JCPOA Annex One commitments. I’m not going to do this in order. I’ll start with Fordow, move on to the IR-6, and conclude with the IR-9.


In its last (August 2019) report on the implementation of the JCPOA the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran had no more than 1,044 centrifuges installed at Fordow and that no nuclear material during the reporting period was introduced to the facility. Under Section 44 of Annex One Fordow “will be converted into a nuclear, physics, and technology centre and international collaboration will be encouraged in agreed areas of research.” Thus Section 45 “Iran will not conduct any uranium enrichment or any uranium enrichment related R&D and will have no nuclear material at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) for 15 years.” Iran is now violating those provisions. Fordow was to be devoted to stable isotope production for research, industrial and medicinal purposes. Under section 46.2 of Annex One that was to be limited to two IR-1 centrifuge cascades, “two cascades that have not experienced UF6 before will be modified for the production of stable isotopes. The transition to stable isotope production of these cascades at FFEP will be conducted in joint partnership between the Russian Federation and Iran on the basis of arrangements to be mutually agreed upon.”

This is where the reported use of the term “reversible” in the announcement of the phase four measures becomes important. As can be seen the JCPOA stipulates stable isotope production is reserved for two cascades that were not feed with UF-6 prior to Implementation Day (the day the agreement came into force). UF-6 is a nasty and highly corrosive gas, centrifuges that have enriched uranium previously are not optimal for isotope separation other than for UF6 thereafter, and usage of “reversible” means that Iran has just announced it is going to feed UF6 into IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow that were fed UF6 in the past. That leaves the two centrifuges stipulated for stable isotope separation under the JCPOA still devoted to this task. It is only on this basis that the announced measure renders as reversible. That makes the Fordow measure a carefully calibrated measure. If the other parties ensure Annex Two holds Iran can return back to the Annex One provisions on Fordow. That’s assuming the reports regarding reversibility are accurate, something to watch out for in the coming period.


This one is interesting. That’s because feeding UF6 into either 30 machine IR-6 cascade or both has been set by the Europeans as a “redline.” For that reason, it would be a major step that could lead to a significant escalation of the crisis. Under Section 32 of Annex One “Iran will continue to conduct enrichment R&D in a manner that does not accumulate enriched uranium.” Under Section 37 regarding the IR-6 specifically “Iran will continue testing of the IR-6 on single centrifuge machines and its intermediate cascades and will commence testing of up to 30 centrifuge machines from one and a half years before the end of year 10.” At phase three of the reduction of its commitments under Annex One Iran announced to the IAEA, as per the Agency’s report on the matter,

“On 7 September 2019, Iran informed the Agency that it intended to install and test, with natural uranium, additional advanced centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) in Natanz. On the same day, the Agency verified that the following centrifuges were either installed or being installed at PFEP. 22 IR-4, one IR-5, 30 IR-6 and three IR-6s.4 All of the installed centrifuges had been prepared for testing with UF6, although none of them were being tested with UF6 on 7 and 8 September 2019.”

The 30 IR-6s put Iran at odds with Section 37 and the latest announcement doubles that up. This opens up the prospect of experimenting with IR-6 centrifuges in cascades greater than 30. The IR-6 has a reported 10 SWU kg/yr separative capacity.

The business regarding Fordow has dominated the airwaves, not so much the matter regarding advanced centrifuges. That’s because discussion of Iran’s activities has always been, and continues to be, dominated by breakout scenarios where accumulation of enriched uranium (even LEU) is all important. I’ve never been too fussed by that. I’ve always been more interested in Iran’s ability to develop small clandestine enrichment plants using more powerful centrifuges. The more Iran experiments with advanced centrifuges, and the more it puts under cascade, the more knowledge and capacity it acquires to do this. Alexander Glaser’s crude breakout scenario involving the A.Q. Khan origin IR-2 (5 SWU kg/yr in his calculation) assumes 987 machines in a maximum cascade of 106 machines. Recall the IR-6 has a reported 10 SWU kg/yr separative capacity.

Work on more powerful centrifuges in larger cascades provides for a type of epistemic breakout, and Trump’s insanity is facilitating this. The JCPOA clearly wanted to place curbs on that by limiting Iranian Research and Development and by having Iran accede to the Additional Protocol to the IAEA Model Safeguards Agreement, which is designed to detect clandestine plants through more open ended inspection and environmental sampling.

The reports I have seen suggest Iran has not introduced UF6 into any of its 30 machine IR-6 cascades, but this too is something worth monitoring closely over the coming days and weeks. It could lead to a breakdown.

The IR-9

Oh, I want my mummy. Ali Akbar Salehi also announced this week that Iran was working on a prototype of an even more powerful centrifuge than the IR-6 called the IR-9. Salehi claimed it’s 50 times more powerful than the IR-1. That means the IR-9 is to have a 50 SWU kg/yr separative work capacity.  Under the JCPOA, again Section 32, “for 10 years and consistent with its enrichment R&D plan, Iran’s enrichment R&D with uranium will only include IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges. Mechanical testing on up to two single centrifuges for each type will be carried out only on the IR-2m, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, IR-6s, IR-7 and IR-8. Iran will build or test, with or without uranium, only those gas centrifuges specified in this JCPOA.” That makes no mention of the IR-9.  The separative work capacity of a centrifuge primarily increases with the length of the rotor wall and the rotor wall velocity, and greater rotor wall velocity is achieved through increasing the strength to weight ratio of the material used to manufacture the rotor. The Iranians seem to be riding the learning curve quite nicely here. If there’s the curve of binding energy, then this is the curve of separating energy.

It takes 232 SWU kg/yr to produce 1 kg of highly enriched uranium. The significant quantity of nuclear material for a modern implosion nuclear weapon whose fissile core is highly enriched uranium is about 12 kg. That makes 2,784 SWU kg/yr to produce enough HEU for one modern implosion device. One IR-9, recall, has a 50 SWU kg/yr separating capacity. The more powerful the gas centrifuge the lower the footprint of a clandestine enrichment plant, which would make it harder to detect especially using technical means at a distance. Here’s a pic of the IR-9 in some of its glory (this comes from an Iranian TV news report uploaded to YouTube by Ali Javid).

North Korea

Okay, so what’s the deal with North Korea? Well, North Korea has been at this game longer than Iran and, you’d think, has made more progress than Iran. So, if the Iranians are getting a prototype of an IR-9 what makes you think North Korea doesn’t have a machine with a similar capacity, if not a machine with more separative capacity? Now remember that 2018 CNBC report, citing US intelligence officials, claiming North Korea has multiple clandestine enrichment sites

“U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months and may try to hide these while seeking concessions in nuclear talks with the United States, NBC News quoted U.S. officials as saying.”


“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.”

Subsequent to that report one of those was fingered by analysts at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, namely the Kangson enrichment plant near Chollima. It is the oldest North Korean enrichment plant, and reportedly its location wasn’t fixed by US intelligence until 2010 (although it appears to have been operational since 2003). So where are the others? They haven’t been publicly disclosed nor pinpointed by researchers.  They (or it) could be hard to find because North Korea has installed them (or it) with advanced centrifuges as the plants (or plant) which house them have a relatively small footprint. It’s not clear that the US intelligence assessment is based on technical intelligence gathering as opposed to human intelligence either.

The North Korean angle, I submit, shows you what research and development into powerful centrifuges can lead to. The mushrooming of clandestine enrichment plants that cannot be permanently bombed out of existence even when detected. The epistemic genie is then well and truly out of the bottle. This is more significant than traditional breakout scenarios.  

Now consider the possible state of play in 2020. Iran completely withdraws from the JCPOA and the diplomacy with North Korea has collapsed. North Korea, prior to entering that process, stated it would not sell any of its nuclear technology to potential foreign buyers. It’s quite possible, then, that North Korea might arrange a little A.Q. Khan type advanced centrifuge package for Iran (or another buyer) in which case you’ll get a working cascade or two or three of IR-9 centrifuges sooner than you think.

Which just goes to show how much of a dickhead Trump is.  Reports in the mainstream press in the past week have repeated the usual canard that Trump withdrew from the JCPOA because it doesn’t limit Iran’s missile programme and because of Tehran’s actions in the Middle East. That’s so much bullshit. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA because it was negotiated by Obama so therefore had to be destroyed, and secondly because, for Pompeo and co especially, its reflective of a regional strategy that seeks to create stability by creating instability. Stability is a technical phrase meaning adherence to US plans and preferences. Iran does not have a sufficiently servile foreign policy, which is contrary to stability, so in order to create a more servile Iran Washington must sow instability.  

That’s not too dissimilar to the last time the Reaganites were in power. Then the Bush administration policy was AOC, Anyone Other than Clinton. Because the Agreed Framework with North Korea was associated with Clinton it had to go. That played no small role in the advent of the Kangson enrichment plant. Now we’ve got Anyone Other than Obama, and so we’re heading toward another Kangson this time under the sands of Persia.

First as tragedy, twice as farce.

Finally, before I conclude this post which has exceeded my planned word length (the best laid and all that) I upload this selection of traditional Iranian music. I played it in the background as I was working on this. I offer it as a reminder that there’s more to Iran than missiles and centrifuges.

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Contiki Denuclearisation: Tourism and the Collapse of Working Level Talks with North Korea in Sweden.

Recent developments regarding North Korea appear to confirm some of the key themes of my previous post. In that post I suggested the recent working level talks on denuclearisation in Sweden collapsed because the United States did not provide a sanctions relief package. However, it has been widely reported Washington did offer sanctions relief in exchange for a substantial step toward denuclearisation, an assumption shared by most commentators. As suggested in that post, a hypothesis one might draw, rather, was the US offered, at best, tourist development at Sweden in exchange for a substantial step toward denuclearisation. That’s not a serious offer.

Heading into the working level talks an article appeared at Vox which suggested US negotiators would offer North Korea sanctions relief targeting specific sectors of the civilian economy, textiles and coal, for 36 months in exchange for dismantlement of Yongbyon if not all of North Korea’s fissile material production facilities.

The Vox report led many to blame North Korea for the collapse of the talks but notice this position relies on an uncritical acceptance of the report’s accuracy. Subsequent to the diplomatic breakdown President Trump made remarks about a “rebuild” in North Korea, with a specific focus on the Kalma Tourist Resort project near Wonsan. Not long thereafter Kim Jong Un visited the Mt Kumgang Tourist Resort, the well known joint venture between Seoul and Pyongyang, and the Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort. In both visits Kim Jong Un placed especial emphasis on the need for self reliance in tourist industry development, in the case of Mt Kumgang so much so that its revitalisation would no longer be conducted in association with the South Kim declared. Satellite imagery analysis published at 38 North by Peter Makowsky suggests the Kalma Tourist Resort is well advanced.

Now a lengthy Reuters report was published this week following the North’s testing of its “super-large calibre” MLRS (the test is left for a subsequent write up). It covered a lot of ground. Here are some remarks attributed to a diplomat in the know regarding the working level talks in Sweden

Although some media reports said the United States planned to propose temporarily lifting sanctions on coal and textile exports, the diplomat said the talks in Stockholm did not get into details.

“The U.S. can’t take the risk of easing sanctions first, having already given a lot of gifts to Kim without substantial progress on denuclearization, including summits,” the diplomat said. “Sanctions are basically all they have to press North Korea.”

You can see from this what the pre Stockholm Vox report by Alex Ward said would happen at Stockholm didn’t happen, but still it remains the default position of commentators whose task is not to inform rather to spin developments in the interests of power. The original article appears to have been a false leak designed to shape perceptions of the diplomacy, and those responsible for this correctly relied upon the mainstream media’s usual source of analytical commentary to play ball.

Further along we get this

The United States and South Korea suggested tourism, rather than resuming the Kaesong operation, as a potential concession to the North after the failed second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February, the Seoul-based diplomat said.

It appears in return for a concrete step toward disarmament, likely the dismantlement of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon (in whole or in substantial part) perhaps also additional to the Kangson uranium enrichment plant, the United States and South Korea offered tourism joint ventures in exchange.

That’s, of course, a joke. North Korea’s position since the Pyongyang Declaration, co signed by Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in during their Pyongyang Summit, has been clear. Yongbyon for a substantial reciprocal concession, focused on sanctions relief. The relevant passage of the Yongbyon Declaration reads

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. 

For Yongbyon North Korea is asking for a reciprocal step by the United States to end what it calls its “hostile policy.” Pyongyang regards Yongbyon as a concrete substantial step toward “denuclearisation” and for this, it is clear, it expects a concrete substantial step by Washington toward ending the hostile policy. It sees that in terms of sanctions relief not peanuts such as tourist industry codevelopment, to paraphrase General Zia-ul-Haq. South Korea’s acceptance of the US formulation means it has distanced itself from this aspect of the Pyongyang Declaration.

You can see how Kim Jong Un’s recent on the spot guidance at Mt Kumgang and Yandok fits into the picture. They demonstrate that he doesn’t need the assistance of Seoul and Washington here, the satellite imagery of Kalma seems to support this, which means tourism development is not a “corresponding measure” as per the Pyongyang Declaration. Why give up big chunks of the regime’s “crown jewels,” to again borrow from Pakistan, in return for a pittance? It’s pretty obvious that demanding the crown jewels for a penny is not a proper negotiating stance.

One can see how this undermines the entire tenor of the Reuters article., which is based on the view Pyongyang has firmed its stance hence the Stockholm breakdown. It hasn’t. The stance remans as per the Yongbyon Declaration.

In further developments a study commissioned by the INGO “Korea Peace Now”

Found that 3,968 North Koreans died due to sanctions-related delays and funding deficits in 2018, including 3,193 children under the age of 5 and 72 pregnant women.

United Nations programs that address malnutrition, hygiene and sanitation issues, reproductive health and vitamin A deficiencies were hit especially hard, according to the report.

These are described, even by Korea Peace Now, as “unintended” impacts of the sanctions regime. That is false. These impacts are intended, and that makes the United Nations sanctions crimes against humanity. The humanitarian situation in North Korea is well known (for instance it’s known that almost 50% of the population is undernourished). What’s the predictable consequence of a sanctions regime under such circumstances? The death of thousands of children, including through diarrhea, is a predictable consequence of economic sanctions that’s what.  To proceed with sanctions targeting the civilian economy, knowing of these predictable consequences, would render their predictable impact intentional.

Consider the depravity of the situation. At Hanoi North Korea offered Yongbyon dismantlement, as per the Pyongyang Declaration, in exchange for relief from sanctions specifically targeting the civilian economy. This would have alleviated the suffering of Koreans and offered Washington and Seoul a measure of strategic stability. To this Washington said no. The United States, instead, demanded the final, fully verified, dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme (essentially CVID) upfront a.k.a. “the Libya model.” So, the sanctions remain, and so Korean children continue to die. The object of all this is to give the world a signal lesson; the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. North Korea must be seen as conceding to the US, not the other way around, nor indeed can the concessions be seen as mutual and reciprocal as North Korea is not equal in power. As “Madame Secretary” stated with regard to the Iraq sanctions the death of children is a “price,” for us not them mind you, “but we think the price is worth it.”

Consider the bind this puts South Korea in. Seoul has been manoeuvred into jointly demanding Yongbyon in return for tourism industry development, but that leaves the sanctions regime essentially in place. Attending to the interest American foreign policy elites have in demonstrating the perceived credibility of US power ranks as a higher policy priority for Seoul than arresting the humanitarian impact of the sanctions regime on fellow Koreans. It’s not just Trump and the Trump administration that share this interest. As shown in Congress last week liberal Democrats too demand Pyongyang give off the appearance it has kneeled before US power. They demanded the diplomatic process end given North Korea has shown no willingness to compromise with the US. It’s quite clear, however, that it has shown ample willingness to compromise if by compromise we mean a process of mutual and reciprocal concessions. What North Korea has demonstrated, by contrast, is an unwillingness to surrender on bended knee before Zod.

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Sundries and Extras

Philosophy: Rationalism, in part, is the idea that there’s such a thing as innate ideas or innate knowledge. Rationalism as a philosophical, or better still scientific, thesis should not be confused with rationalism as ideology. These are two different things. I’d say I’m a rationalist in the former sense, but certainly not the latter sense.

It turns out that antirationalism itself is innate, according to research published at MIT’s Open Mind Journal, discussed in a good Northeastern University media article (one of the researchers, Iris Berent, is of Northeastern)

“In one of eight experiments, Berent and her co-authors asked participants to think about what it’d be like to grow up on a deserted island, speculating which traits might spontaneously emerge in someone who hasn’t had a chance to observe them in others. In another experiment, they asked participants which traits might spontaneously appear in birds; in another, they asked the same question about aliens.

Time after time, people were more likely to reason that the only traits that would appear would be motor skills and emotions—not cognitive skills, or “knowledge”—even when the researchers made reference to real-world experiments that showed the contrary.”

That being the case the interesting question then becomes; why does this cognitive bias toward antirationalism arise? Here things are by no means settled, but Berent has a good theory

“Of the certain principles that help us make sense of the world, one is believing that the “essence” of an object is at its core and is tangible: Research has shown that children assert that a brown dog’s offspring is also brown because a tiny piece of matter transfers from the former to the latter. This suggests that kids have a grasp of inheritance even before they’re taught as much.

However, imagining inheritance as a physical process competes with another principle: thinking of the mind and body as separate (even though science tells us otherwise, notes Berent). For example, if your hairdresser wants to pick up his pair of scissors, no one needs to push his hand for him to do it; if he has the physical ability to pick it up, he need only decide to pick it up, and the hand moves—by shear will, so to speak. His mind acts, and his body follows.”

There’s some irony there, of course. The doctrine of innate ideas and mind-body dualism are both associated with Rene Descartes, and so we have a kind of Cartesian circle at play. Our innate Cartesian dualism leads us to exhibit a cognitive bias against Cartesian innatism, so the dualism has us rejecting the innatism. That may well be the case, but I suspect something else might be at play or at the very least additionally at play. That’s the idea of knowledge itself. There’s been some stuff done in Xphi or experimental philosophy regarding our intuitive, innate if you will, ideas regarding knowledge. A lot of that seeks to tease out our ideas regarding warranted assertibility or justification (internalist, externalist, foundationalist, coherentist and so on) and I think a fruitful link might be drawn with the work on innate antirationalism. My understanding is Xphi tends to show our intuitions regarding knowledge to be externalist, and that’s consistent with Berent’s explanation for the underlying source of our innate antirationalism. Knowledge is something that arises through induction, association, and the conscious use of reason and as such is something that’s acquired as we go about the world. This innate externalism has us ruling out innate knowledge.

To go deeper still, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t all tied up to the justified true belief conceptualisation of knowledge. Our intuitive concept of knowledge is strongly tied up to warranted assertibility and it is this that leads to an innate externalist epistemology. However, the Gettier examples demonstrate this traditional JTB conceptualisation of knowledge does not hold. So, we get another interesting little circle, namely Plato’s. This is because Plato held two competing theses, one a theory of innate knowledge via the slave boy argument and the other a JTB conceptualisation of knowledge. One must go, and that’s the traditional idea of knowledge.

Notice the thesis of innate antirationalism, going down this epistemic axis of attack, strongly implies a little theory I’ve held for many years. Namely, knowledge itself is a physical category and a true theory of knowledge, a true naturalistic epistemology, would be one which provides a physicalist rendering of knowledge. This, however, would first require us to rethink our concepts of the physical such that they become more mental.

Finally, just because there’s a natural cognitive bias at work does not mean antirationalism in the wider intellectual culture gets a free pass. Our cognitive biases regarding mass, space, time, gravity and so on we know to be false, and that fact is widely accepted and appreciated. This means the antirationalism of the broader intellectual culture cannot be solely attributed to an innate cognitive bias. Here we require sociological explanations, by which I mean sociological analyses of the intelligentsia as a social class.

Plutonium: Scientists at the European Synchrotron have discovered a new stable, solid state, form of plutonium which “features an unexpected, pentavalent oxidation state.” This will affect our understanding of plutonium aging over very long lifetimes, something of relevance for the modelling of nuclear waste. Speaking of plutonium, researchers have claimed to have found evidence of heavy element formation in colliding neutron stars in this case strontium. It is hoped further refining and development of data gathering, analysis and interpretation of kilonovas will also empirically detect the astrophysical formation of the other heavy elements such as uranium thus solving the problem of how the heavy elements were formed

“But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the “r-process” for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.

Prior work suggested that a likely source of r-process elements could be the catastrophic aftermath of mergers between neutron stars”

As we know too well, a neutron flux can make things go bang.

Science and Society: There’s a good interview at the New York Review of Books with Noami Oreskes on science and climate change denial. The interview comes as her latest book Why Trust Science reaches publication. Oreskes is concerned with something quite important, the abuse and denial of science with potentially deadly consequences for human civilisation. This concern of Oreskes contrasts with Steven Pinker who is exercised by too much PoMo at the Harvard Faculty Club (the humanities part that is). In a New Republic essay (just linked) on science and the humanities he wrote

“This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.”

There’s a connection to Oreskes and climate change denial there. A lot of the commentary I’ve read about climate change denial, which focuses on the political and economic influence of the fossil fuel industry, too readily focuses on the merchants of doubt rather than their audience. One cannot explain matters fully by assuming the masses are an unthinking lump of clay readily moulded by the merchants (see how empiricist ideas of human nature die hard). Why has their message found fertile ground? In my view, Karl Polanyi’s ideas in his classic The Great Transformation are important here. Neoliberalism has led to the rise of irrational belief in society, just as the original version chronicled by Polanyi had done (a factor accounting for the rise of fascism in his view). This is seen in more domains than climate change. People understand that they’re being shafted and being lied to, and this leads to a generalised suspension of belief. Oreskes asks for trust in science at a time when many aren’t given to trust. For Pinker science underpins the very order against which many in society increasingly direct a generalised rage toward. Don’t forget the injustices and inequities of neoliberal capitalism are justified upon the basis of a metaphysically naturalist science of economics. The minimum wage should stay where it is because that’s what the science of economics tells us. The more Pinker and others like him say the social order is underpinned by science the less apt are people to trust science, and more to the point scientists. This fertile ground, provided by the depredations and inequities of neoliberal capitalism, is the essential soil upon which the merchants of doubt sow their seeds. This needs to be more readily acknowledged. It’s one of the reasons why we need a Green New Deal or a transition with justice.

Was Einstein Right? So asked Clifford Will in his classis on the renaissance of general relativity. Yes, says this great overview of the experimental basis of general relativity at International Engineering. It’s often said quantum electrodynamics is the most precisely experimentally confirmed physical theory, although Roger Penrose has always argued general relativity is. Richard Feynman, I think, did most to popularise the claims of QED to having this status, which makes sense given, to paraphrase Silvan Schweber, he was one of the men who made it. The claim for QED is not unrelated to the case for quantum gravity; general relativity must be superseded because the quantum is more empirically precise. It’s interesting that there’s been a few theories of quantum gravity in the last 70 years, but not one of them has made a single, let alone the single most precise, experimentally verified prediction.

Space Exploration or Space Exploitation: Monica Vidaurri has an interesting essay at Quartz on the ethics of space exploration.

“When it comes to an industry as young as space exploration, its important to recognize colonization, imperialism, and exploitation as not just a series of major historical events that humanity is still recovering from,  but as things that can conceivably inspire the future laws that will determine our fate in space…(Snip)

But we need rules, regulations, and recourse for justice. And how can we achieve that if we have never succeeded in solving those issues on our own planet? The minute we launch into space, our human tendencies and ideologies are not magically left on Earth…(Snip)

If we want to create a truly sustainable and responsible space environment, we must ensure that our efforts are transparent, ethical, and inclusive, and that we fully understand our historical tendencies as wealthy nations with an affinity for capitalism.”

She’s surely right about that. The space age was preceded by sort of cosmic or cosmological theories of emancipation. Space exploration would provide for a type of spiritual transformation and material abundance facilitating cooperation, solidarity, and mutual aid among humanity as a whole. This was carried into popular representations during the space age itself, witness for instance Star Trek. Space exploration was a way of solving worldly problems, and this idea survives in all sorts of interesting ways. But what Vidaurri is saying here is we’ve got all that wrong. We must sort our shit on Earth first, otherwise we’ll just take it all with us to space. Yep, that’s spot on. We think space will make of us Vulcans, but we’re the fuckin’ Klingons, Ferengi and Vogons rolled into one. In a way we have taken our ways to space, if you view Earth in both Spaceship Earth and Anthropocene terms. One way we’ll continue to do this is through the securitisation of space.

Missile Defence: Speaking of which, there were interesting remarks coming from the Missile Defense Agency this month on a few aspects to future BMD or MD as it’s now called. One was the expressed need to develop a more integral missile defence architecture. The slate of sensor technologies across the multiple BMD platforms, such as PAC-3 and THAAD etc, need to be better integrated through timely communication of information according to the link above. This would have implications for regional BMD architectures, especially in Northeast Asia. So South Korean BMD could more readily receive battle management data from US and Japanese sensors, and vice versa. Opposition law makers in South Korea have called for more information sharing with Japan. The basis on which this call was made, South Korea didn’t detect many of North Korea’s missile tests from May this year onward, was false. It did, however there was uncertainty, especially early on, about what precisely was being flight tested. Japan and South Korea do have an intelligence sharing pact, General Security of Military Information Agreement, but that’s come under strain given the recent rise of tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. Seoul announced it would withdraw from the pact, but it remains in force

“Under GSOMIA, South Korea earlier this month shared with Japan its assessment of North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile, helping Japan correct its mistaken evaluation that Pyongyang launched two short-range missiles, rather than a single sub-launched ballistic missile that can strike more extended-range targets.”

An integrated BMD architecture communicating information across Northeast Asia means you wouldn’t be talking about South Korean or Japanese BMD but rather a single integrated system including US interceptors and sensors. North Korea would want to take regional BMD out early in a conflict on the Korean peninsula in that instance. Regardless of the niceties of data sharing diplomacy surely KPA strategic planners will consider regional BMD to be a single integrated system, and the recent comments by the MDA would give them no reason to disabuse themselves of this notion. A lot of what North Korea has tested since May has a BMD focus to it, and it serves as further reminder that missile defence is one of the world’s main sources of strategic instability.

Russia and China’s Early Warning System:  Also, this month Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is helping China build an early warning system for detecting ballistic missile launches, presumably including both ground based and space based sensors. This is something definitely worth keeping on your radar. Will China adopt a launch on warning posture? If so, what would that entail for Beijing’s no first use doctrine and the manner in which it deploys its nuclear warheads? There’s little point in having a launch on warning system if warheads are stored separately from missiles. Also, Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, announced that Russia would be sending to Serbia its S-400 SAM system for the “Slavic Shield” joint air defence exercises at Batajnica airfield, whereupon they’ll go back whence they came. Batajnica was bombed by NATO in 1999 when Putin was head of Yeltsin’s Security Council of Russia, therefore NATO’s “technical courier,” as he himself put it at the time, so the Slavic shield is 20 years too late.

North Korea and Socialism: There’s been some important stuff coming out of North Korea since Kim Jong-un’s ascent of Mt Paektu on a white horse. This deserves an entry in its own right. There was one wee KCNA commentary that drew my eye. It relayed an article published by Rodong Sinmun on the “3rd anniversary of the publication of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s work ‘The Duty of the Working Class of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il for the Times and the Tasks Facing Trade Union Organizations’”. The commentary goes on;

“It is the unwavering will of the whole working class to be loyal to the idea and guidance of the leaders all the times.

Today the heroic Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il working class lives with their lots cast in with the Party Central Committee and shares the intention, breath and step with the leader.”

In recent North Korean news reports, there’s been much mentioned of both self reliance and socialism. The comments quoted above have absolutely nothing to do with socialism, and they encapsulate well the inherently anti socialist character of North Korean society. The article calls for the absolute and perpetual subordination of the working class to the state and the party central committee. Notice it does so on the basis of a type of organicism. Neohegelian ideas regarding the organic nature of collectivist entities are important features of our own conceptions of corporate personhood, and they can be found in Stalinist and fascist thought as well. I think organicist conceptions of society are well suited to inherently hierarchical and nondemocratic forms of collectivism.

Posted in International Relations and Global Security, Philosophy and Science, Politics and Economics | Comments Off on Sundries and Extras

Working Level Nuclear Talks Between U.S. and North Korea Collapse in Stockholm.

The prospect of working level talks between the United States and North Korea was the major tangible outcome of the Panmunjom tete a tete between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. As we know these were convened in Stockholm on October 5, after a lot of uncertainty in the interim period as to whether they would proceed, and thereupon quickly collapsed. As we have witnessed repeatedly since the Singapore process began, we were presented with two versions as to the why and wherefore, and since Singapore, on every occasion, the North Korean version has proved the more accurate.

You’d put your money on Pyongyang’s version again being more in tune with the facts, but not if you’re paid by a foreign policy think tank or a major university of course.

Heading into the summit a report by Alex Ward at Vox stated

“Here’s the offer, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations: The United Nations would suspend sanctions on Pyongyang’s textile and coal exports for 36 months in exchange for the verifiable closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and another measure, most likely the end of North Korea’s uranium enrichment.”

This offer was perceived as being closer to North Korea’s position on how diplomacy should proceed, that is via a step-by-step reciprocal process as opposed to Trump’s hitherto big bang approach of all or nothing. Limited, and reversible, sanctions suspension for 36 months in exchange for verified and irreversible dismantlement of much of, if not all, North Korea’s fissile material production facilities isn’t too reciprocal. We tend to forget the emphasis on reciprocal in step-by-step reciprocal process. Tit-for-tat is how North Korea has rolled since the 1990s. However, North Korea claims that’s not what happened at Stockholm. That is, the US didn’t make the above offer.

The North Koreans allege the US, note post Bolton, made its familiar demand of complete, verified and irreversible dismantlement prior to the making of concessions of its own. The US, by contrast, stated that the talks were long and fruitful and expressed a willingness to resume them in two weeks. The North Koreans stated it would be highly unlikely Washington would change its position in two weeks, and so again we are at an impasse.

The Ward report does not discuss timing. That is would sanctions suspension follow Yongbyon+ verified dismantlement, or would it be in place as the process (verifiably) proceeded?

Now there are two interesting things here, well worth reflecting upon. The first is that Western commentators and analysts, often referred to as foreign policy experts in the mainstream media (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting link), widely repeated the charge Pyongyang was responsible for the breakdown at Stockholm. North Korea, it was often claimed, was repeating a familiar brinkmanship style of diplomacy to extract maximum concessions. The second is that the US ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, stated that Pyongyang was to blame for the collapse of working level talks because it wanted “everything” in exchange for “nothing,” a familiar charge (recall Trump and Pompeo at Hanoi).

Notice the second is obviously false. North Korea, as stated above, has consistently called for a step-by-step reciprocal process. It has consistently, since Hanoi, called for Washington to change what Pyongyang dubs its “method of calculation” with the emphasis, to repeat, on the reciprocal. That’s been the bedrock North Korean position, there’s no mystery here, for that is precisely what was called for in the Panmunjom Declaration between Kim Jong-un and the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. There both Pyongyang and Seoul agreed that the North’s offering up Yongbyon in exchange for “suitable concessions,” which we know to be relief from sanctions targeting its civilian economy. That makes “the method of calculation” not just Kim’s but also Moon’s. However, the South has made further progress on building North-South ties contingent on North Korea agreeing with the US on a denuclearisation accord. Yet Pyongyang sees Washington as the main barrier here, which explains, to no small degree, a lot of the anti Seoul rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang recently. So, to repeat, the Harry Harris charge is false and thus we have the familiar pattern; the North Korean characterisation is more accurate than the American.

See how that affects the widespread charge made by our erstwhile foreign policy experts? Their position rests on the supposition that North Korea changed its formulation, “its method of calculation” as it were, but Pyongyang has been consistent on this since the Panmunjom Declaration. This then leads to a further hypothesis, for the question then becomes; what of the Ward report? This report has played an important role in the way commentators and analysts have framed Stockholm because it suggests Pyongyang was made a reasonable interim offer, a change from the hitherto all or nothing US stance. It is possible that North Korea rejected this on account of the factors mentioned above. It is also possible that the report, based on information from US official sources, was a means for those sources to plant information in the public sphere suggesting a change in US stance while at Stockholm the usual fare would be offered Pyongyang. That way, the North Koreans could take the hit with the foreign policy experts reliably playing their assigned role.

It’s difficult to tell. I’d like to see more information but given what we know the second remains a plausible hypothesis. These two hypotheses, we might point out, are not mutually exclusive.

Now a report has just come out, originally from a South Korean outlet, that adds mud to the water, or you might say clears the water. This report claims that at Stockholm the US offered North Korea assistance in the construction of the Kalma Beach Tourist Resort not far from Wonsan (at a location where North Korea previously engaged in massed artillery exercises). This was made in exchange for steps toward denuclearisation, steps unspecified we might say. In some English language reports this has been translated as assistance for Kalma in exchange for denuclearisation. Others stress partial denuclearisation. The translation of the original South Korean source suggests partial denuclearisation. Note in the Ward report there’s no mention of Kalma.

What might have happened is this. North Korea was offered an interim deal whereby it commits to the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon (perhaps also the Kangson enrichment plant) in exchange for assistance with the completion of the Kalma Beach Tourist Resort. If so, then the deal Washington offered at Stockholm was little more than a joke. I can see a North Korean negotiating team up and walking when learning of it and muttering that the whole affair was “sickening” as they did. Interestingly enough Donald Trump in the last few days has talked about what he calls a “rebuild,” seemingly in reference to Kalma, and Kim Jong-un has just completed on the spot guidance at the joint North-South Mt Kumgang tourist resort stating North Korea will rebuild it on its own without input from Seoul (or Washington presumably).

My bet is that at Stockholm the United States remained committed to its position of disarmament before all else or offered a deal considered well below what Pyongyang has called for since the Panmunjom Declaration and the Hanoi summit. Both are consistent with the Melian Dialogue like aspect to all this, something I’ve been writing about consistently for quite a while now. The United States, Athens, is not making an offer to Melos, North Korea, that it perceives as being below its dignity as a great power. North Korea must be seen to suffer what it must, and that requires a deal which is *not* reciprocal in nature.

There were some other useful tidbits during this period for us to consider. Not long after North Korea’s test of its new Pukguksong-3 SLBM the European members of the UN Security Council called for North Korea “to engage in good faith meaningful negotiations with the United States, and to take concrete steps with a view to abandoning all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” That provides a good guide as to what Washington might have demanded at Stockholm, i.e. concrete steps toward CVID (perhaps Yongbyon plus Kangson), but the Europeans make no indication of what Washington offered in return. It quite simply had to be less than what Pyongyang called for at Hanoi given North Korea’s repeated refrain regarding “the method of calculation.” For their part the North Koreans demanded Washington make “concrete and irreversible” steps toward sanctions relief. You get the drift.

Now the North Koreans made some interesting statements hot on the heels of this. North Korean officials stated, following its recent missile tests, should the matter be brought to the Security Council Pyongyang would be compelled to take measures to defend its sovereignty, and to reversing commitments made in April 2018 prior to the Singapore process starting. Regarding those measures the North’s UN representative said they wouldn’t necessarily involve a missile test. In the April 2018 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party North Korea announced the suspension of long range missile and nuclear weapons testing. In recent comments the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces of South Korea stated that Pyongyang could quickly restore tunnels 3 and 4 at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. North Korea has always oversold its supposed demolition work at Punggye-ri. Should North Korea reverse the April 2018 Plenum restoration work at Punggye-ri might be its first physical manifestation, rather than a long range missile test. Don’t forget the April 2018 policy pronouncement included not just missile and nuclear testing. Pledges were made there regarding nonproliferation that might be reversed too in future.

This all, of course, brings us to the white horse as not long after Pyongyang’s UN representative spoke Kim Jong-un ascended Mt Paektu upon a white horse. This was widely ridiculed, with widespread howls of laughter doubtless picked up by some exoplanet SETI programme in the far reaches of the galaxy. Yet so easy do we forget. What of the swashbuckling cowboy Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t averse to straddling a white horse or two in demonstration of his presidential virality?  The same Ronald Reagan, according to Abram Sofaer, of the Hoover Institution (affiliated to Stanford University), whose “spirit seems to stride over the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.”

The warm and friendly ghost providing on the spot guidance
The warm and friendly ghost ascends the sacred mountains prior to unleashing the supply side revolution. This you can actually buy as a wall ornament.

Oh, and what about the Wallop Senate drive of Malcolm Wallop (an arch Reaganite conservative). Oh, and the original Marlboro Man and so on. The absurdities of North Korean propaganda one can understand, but the very same absurdities exhibited by our own propaganda systems we don’t even notice. This brainwashing under freedom, most especially among the educated and the expert, is surely the more interesting to contemplate.

At any rate, there has been some hefty speculation as to what the white horse was all about. It’s been noted, correctly, that Kim Jong-un has visited Mt Paektu prior to making important policy pronouncements or shifts in policy. The relevant KCNA statement concluded;

“Having witnessed the great moments of his thinking atop Mt Paektu, all the officials accompanying him were convinced with overflowing emotion and joy that there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again and make a step forward in the Korean revolution.”

What could this be? It could be the “new way” that Kim spoke of in his 2019 new year address that he’d pursue should the peace process collapse. That new way was not specified then, and nor is it now. It might involve, as I have argued for yonks, a type of “threat that leaves something to chance” as Pyongyang manipulates external perceptions of risk to extract concessions that cannot be extracted through diplomacy. At the domestic level, to speculate, it might be like Gorbachev’s “Uskoreniye” or “Acceleration” reform policy pursued prior to Perestroika. An important facet of this was accelerating the scientific and technological basis of the Soviet production system. Kim Jong-un, who has placed especial emphasis on science and technology, might announce something similar. The white horse has been used as a symbol of the Chollima movement of the Kim Il-sung era which stressed speeding up the rate of industrial production. This was a type of Stakhanovism that has never been officially renounced in North Korea, with a Stakhanovite labelled a “Chollima Rider.” I suspect this would partially involve the use of nuclear energy, something that Kim spoke of in the 2019 new year address without further elaborating.

The bottom line of Stockholm it seems to me is this. We have until the new year to strike a deal with Pyongyang. Recent comments from Pyongyang suggest the Hanoi deal remains on the table. We have a choice. We can go back to 2017, if not something altogether worse, or we accept the arrangement North Korea offered at Hanoi. Yongbyon for sanctions relief. I would suggest that choosing the latter is the better, more rational way, to proceed assuming security is a priority as opposed to considerations of power. That would require changing the way we think about North Korea, as it entails accepting a relationship of mutual deterrence. It’s very hard to do this so long as our perception of North Korea is dominated by the narrative of weird little North Korea, “another country” to paraphrase Bruce Cumings, as the more weird we regard North Korea to be the less apt are we to accept a posture of mutual deterrence with it. The episode of the white horse is instructive. It shows, whatever it shows regarding North Korea, that our attitude and disposition toward this other country remains unconducive for the ready acceptance of mutual deterrence.

But don’t be worryin’ y’all. There is that spirit striding on a white horse watching over us like a warm and friendly ghost. Some call it Ronald Reagan. Some call it the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. Some call it Star Wars. Call it what you like. It ain’t gonna save your arse all the same.

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North Korea’s Pukguksong-3 SLBM Test: What Insights Might We Draw?

We’ve surely heard by now North Korea tested a new sea launched ballistic missile, the Pukugksong-3 SLBM, on October 2. We’ve also surely heard the working level talks on denuclearisation between the US and North Korea collapsed not long thereafter. Let’s concentrate on the first, for now. A North Korean SLBM test (not necessarily of the Pukguksong-3) was anticipated. There was quite a bit of, very good, satellite image analysis going around in the period prior to it suggesting something was in the works. That was all right on the money.

One of the first things that came to mind when the launch location was roughly pinpointed, and then North Korean state media confirmed the missile tested was the Pukguksong-3, was Kim Jong-un’s August 2017 visit to the Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Science. That was the first time we heard of the Pukguksong-3 (it featured on a poster visible in images released of the visit). I’ll return to this in short order.

Here’s a sample from the satellite image analysis of Jack Liu and Jenny Town at 38North not long before the Pukugksong-3 test (published September 26);

“Imagery from August 26 shows the presence of four vessels berthed at the secure boat basin… [snip]… In imagery from September 23, the cylindrical canister and associated support equipment now appear on the submersible test barge along with support vessels. The canister transport truck and crane are still on the quay. These activities suggest that preparations for a pop-up ejection test are likely underway.”

And there she was

Notice the cold launch

The test was certainly conducted from a submersible test barge, as the above linked article points out, and the Pukguksong-3 note was also cold launched

“This test is routinely done prior to actual missile launches, to ensure that the missile can be ejected at the proper speed and angle before committing to ejection and launch from the submarine.”

What might we say about the missile? What may we say about the submarine to which it might be deployed? What might we say about the test’s strategic implications?

The October 2 test flew on a lofted 910km trajectory and to a 450km range. As David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists quickly pointed out if flown on a standard trajectory the range would have been 1,900km. Initial reports had two missiles being launched, however we know now North Korea tested the single two stage SLBM. As the images above show the Pukguksong-3 is a solid fuel missile, North Korea’s longest range solid propellant missile. The dimensions are of interest, especially the diameter. Unfortunately, the pictures released do not give us a reference frame to conclusively calculate this. Michael Elleman, at 38North, argues from analogy the diameter is likely 1.4-to-1.5 metres

“the Pukguksong-3 is likely to be about 1.4 to 1.5 meters in diameter, and roughly 7.8 to 8.3 meters long, making it similar, if not the same as, the land-based Pukguksong-2, but with a substantially shortened and blunted nose cone. The shorter nose cone was likely adopted to fit the missile into a submarine-launch tube. The US Poseidon and Trident SLBMs and the Chinese JL-2 all employ similar front ends.”


“The Pukguksong-3’s size and configuration is consistent with other SLBM designs. The US Polaris SLBM had a diameter of 1.37 meters, early-French SLBMs were 1.5 meters in diameter and China’s JL-1 was 1.4 meters. The first stage motor of the Pukguksong-3 is roughly two times the size of the second stage motor. This ratio is similar to those found on the US, French and Chinese SLBMs. These similarities are driven by engineering optimization, and not by one country copying another’s design decisions.”

If there’s one thing North Korea’s recent round of missile tests have done, not that it was needed, is they’ve blown the “bluff hypothesis,” in addition to Pyongyang’s missile programme is dependent on foreign expertise, theses both out of the water.

This is where the 2017 Chemical Materials Institute of the Academy of Defence Science visit by KJU enters the picture. Elleman had a good 38North write up of this at the time. One of the things we saw then was KJU inspecting a solid motor casing made of composite fibres

“The large bronze-colored vessel examined by Kim Jong Un is an advanced, light-weight casing designed to house solid propellant. Its size, roughly 1.4-1.5 meters in diameter, is consistent with North Korea’s two existing solid-fuelled missiles: the submarine-based Pukguksong-1 and the land-based Pukguksong-2.”

The Pukguksong series has been developed from the Soviet 2,400km range R-27 Zyb (liquid propellant) SLBM which had a metal casing.  Furthermore, Elleman writes (of the Pukguksong-3 depicted in the poster),

“Building the Pukguksong-3 using lighter-weight composite motor casings, instead of cases made from metal, should allow the new missile to fly further, though exactly how much further is difficult to determine. If North Korea masters the production processes, maintains a reliable supply chain for the filaments and resins needed to create the cases, and adheres to strict quality control procedures, the Pukguksong-3 might be capable of reaching targets 2,000 km away.”

Which is bang on target with the 1,900km estimate for the Pukguksong-3 based on the October 2 test parameters.  The dimensions are interesting because of another thing KJU (partially) showed off, namely a filament winding machine which is used to wind together the composite material of the missile motor case.

“It is unclear if the machine can produce motor casings larger than a 1.5 meter diameter. If not, North Korea will need to acquire a larger winding machine to produce motor casings large enough to power intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).”

Should the Pukguksong-3 have a maximum diameter greater than 1.5m, then the filament winding machine KJU showed off can produce motor casings larger than 1.5m. The UN Panel of Experts in its latest report stated that, according to the assessment of a member state, North Korea is working on the first stage of a solid propellant ICBM. In which case, yes, North Korea does have a filament winding machine capable of producing missile motor casings greater than 1.5m in diameter.

What about the submarine to house the Pukguksong-3 SLBM? We know, thanks to this exceptionally good analysis from H.I. Sutton at his Covert Shores submarine warfare analysis website, that the submarine KJU recently showed off is an SSB modification to the Romeo class vintage Soviet era diesel submarine. Sutton suggests the sail has been lengthened and heightened to accommodate (at time of the writing) Pukguksong-1 SLBMs (KN-11 US designation) in the aft battery compartment. Most likely, Hutton concludes, this configuration could house two KN-11 SLBMs possibly a maximum of three. Should the Pukguksong-3 be for the SSB Mod Romeo submarine then a 1.4-to-1.5 metre diameter estimate for the missile is consistent with what we know.

There have been reports that North Korea is working on another submarine, the Sinpo-C, larger than the Romeo class Mod, although we have not seen it. A diameter larger than 1.5 metres for the Pukguksong-3 would be consistent with that. The 38North analysis of recent activities at the Sinpo South shipyard, linked above, does suggest submarine construction is underway although whether that’s of the SSB Mod Romeo or the rumoured Sinpo-C is unclear. You’d think the former. One of the questions looked at there is whether a new submarine is due for launch, the 38North report is sceptical of this however analysts at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies argue the satellite images suggest a launch sooner rather than later. I’d argue they’re right about that; too many dots fall neatly into place on this (KJUs submarine construction hall visit, the satellite images of activity at Sinpo South, the PG-3 test).

I suspect something like this. Reports have suggested that the Pukguksong-3 test represents North Korea pushing the envelope on missile technology. I agree, but I suggest we might consider going further. The Pukguksong-3 SLBM test does not push the envelope, instead it understates North Korea’s solid fuel production capabilities. Pyongyang has built itself a solid fuel missile with two composite case motors designed for the SSB Romeo class submarine, but the facilities at the Chemical Materials Institute can do better than that.

Don’t forget when KJU visited the Institute the Pukguksong-3 wasn’t the only missile on display (in poster form, of course). So was the Hwasong-13 (KN-08) ICBM. That we previously knew basically to be a mock up of a liquid propellant ICBM based on the engine technology of the R-27 Zyb. That’s so ancient history now.

Image originally provided by KCNA. This enhancement is due to Nathan Hunt available on his Twitter feed

Note the (possible) three stage configuration above. Solid propelled ICBMs and solid propelled SLBMs of ICBM range are typically designed with three stages whereas liquid propelled ICBMs are typically designed with two.

Reports and commentary of the strategic implications of the Pukguksong-3 divided into two strands. The first, it gives North Korea a first strike capability. North Korea can launch a sneaky, undetected, first strike perhaps even against the United States itself.  The second, North Korea is working on a sea based leg of its strategic rocket forces as it seeks an assured second strike capability. The first can be dismissed whatever one thinks about the survival capability of the SSB mod Romeo submarine in so far as we are talking about the United States. A first strike capability doesn’t necessarily mean striking first undetected it means launching a disarming first strike. What we’re talking about here does not give North Korea that capability vis a vis the US. South Korea and Japan, however, is another matter. Whether intended or not, the (possible) capability alone will be of concern to Seoul and Tokyo. South Korea has a programme to acquire nuclear powered submarines to hunt Pyongyang’s ballistic missile submarines, a combination that adds a new dimension to strategic dynamics on and around the Korean peninsula.

I’m not too flashy on the second. I think this is a bit of mirror imaging. I doubt North Korea wants to build a bunch of submarines so at least one is permanently on deterrence patrol. Mainly because I don’t think Pyongyang would like what that would mean for its ultra centralised system of command and control. I’m more in favour of a third position. I tend to think this capability, whose manifestation is more imminent than many suppose, is part of a nuclear strategy not unlike that of China. I surmise that Pyongyang is developing a sea based version of its, what the Chinese call, “shooting a firecracker outside the front door” operational strategy. Pukguksong-3 SLBMs will surge from port in a crisis and they’re to target the ballistic missile defence systems of the region in particular. In that sense the sea based leg of North Korea’s nuclear forces are for assured deterrence but not quite in the manner usually envisaged. Remember that the KN-11 was initially seen as providing for an all-azimuth attack against South Korea’s THAAD radar. Now South Korea is indeed investing in more radars to address gaps in THAADs coverage, but I suspect that North Korea’s strategy for the Pukguksong-3 is not unlike that previously reputed for the KN-11. The Pukguksong-3, in addition to some of the other capabilities we’ve seen North Korea test in recent times, will present the battle assessment and response system of regional BMD with a complex, multi-facetted, challenge. BMD faces more problems than just the physics of interception.  Recall how initial assessments on October 2 wrongly assumed two missiles were launched. That, I submit, was a good example of how cognitive biases influence information processing and that was during a benign period certainly relative to a full-blown crisis. Reports at the time of the Pukguksong-3 test continued to repeat the canard North Korea does not have an RV capable of striking the mainland United States. That’s wishful thinking. The big story here is that Northeast Asia, and the United States, does not have a BMD system capable of addressing the North Korean challenge.

Of course, this all does pose dilemmas for strategic stability during a crisis on the Korean peninsula. We’ve got ourselves plausible submarine based nuclear escalation scenarios and don’t be thinking that’s years off because North Korea wants to build a nuclear navy with permanent deterrence patrols either.

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt about the North Korean nuclear crisis it’s that our penchant for wishful thinking leads us astray, both analytically and, crucially, regarding policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KN-25 (tested to 400km range).

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

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

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

The KN-24 and KN-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, So What of Guidance?

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

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

With regard to solid fuel development the PoE report states

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

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

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

An Arms Race and Strategic Stability

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

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

This walks and talks like an arms race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened?

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

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

The evidence provided suggests something suss was up at Nenoksa.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Economic Growth

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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When Physics Became a Gigolo: Superprofits For Supergravity.

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

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

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

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

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

Hossenfleder concludes her post by writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider some of the more tendentious aspects to the broadside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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