Reality and Representation: Recent Developments on the Denuclearisation Talks Between the United States and North Korea.

The past month or so has seen revelations of a supposed grand North Korean deception, progress on the implementation of the Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations, the stalling of diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, and finally talk of a second summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in early 2019.

That’s a lot of ground, too much to cover every angle. What I will do instead is examine some of these recent developments but with reference to just the one theme, that being the difference between reality and representation. In the sciences the way nature represents herself to us, and the way in which our minds represent nature, can obscure reality. To work our way through that obscurity requires hard work. In the social domain a significant problem hindering inquiry is the active representations that systems of power construct to hide reality, and the all too ready susceptibility of the mind to accept those representations of reality for reasons of interest and status.

Reality and Representation

The charge of deception arises from the representation of a report on North Korean missile bases by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The report actually is divided into two, an overview of 13 out of 20 North Korean missile bases and a detailed report on one of those that being the Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base. The report is based on publicly available satellite imagery and contains much by good detail and analysis. The “undeclared” in the title is unfortunate. I will not discuss either report further here, for I’m more interested in analysing the way that report was represented in the media. It should be said that in its essentials the report discussed missile bases analysed in a previous 2015 Janes Intelligence analysis of publicly available satellite imagery. One aspect to the report was the drawing of a map depicting the deployment pattern of North Korea’s missile bases in three operational bands from just north of the DMZ to just south of the border with China; tactical, operational and strategic. That deployment pattern, and an accompanying map, was also discussed in the Janes analysis.

The New York Times, in an article by David Sanger, charged North Korea with engaging in a grand deception. Having agreed to denuclearisation at Singapore Kim Jong-un was deceptively deploying his nuclear weapons to undeclared missile bases across the country. However, Kim agreed to work toward denuclearisation at Singapore, the first steps of which were dismantling a missile/rocket test stand used for hot testing large liquid propellant engines. Nothing about the CSIS reports contradicts this. Furthermore, North Korea’s conception of denuclearisation is not the same as disarmament. Denuclearisation, certainly for Pyongyang, is often seen as the lowering of the salience of nuclear weapons in a state’s overall strategic posture. For example, one of the reported contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Elizabeth Warren, has called for the United States to adopt a “no first use” doctrine as part of its nuclear declaratory policy. That’s denuclearisation, but it isn’t disarmament. Moreover, North Korea did not agree to declare its missile operating bases at Singapore but it seems as if the United States did agree, without intending to make good on the agreement, to a joint declaration with South Korea on the end of the Korean War. So, if there’s any deception regarding any declaration it was Washington that was doing the deceiving.

The New York Times article was itself highly deceptive, and even as President Trump accused the Times of “fake news,” the editorial board doubled down and insisted that Sanger’s article was correct. The episode reminded one instantly of the New York Times’ reporting in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For this the Editorial Board offered an apology stating

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper

By doubling down on the original article, the Times demonstrated that it has learnt nothing. In a democratic society the public requires sober and rigorous reporting on nuclear matters, this is one of the most important means we possess to lower nuclear dangers. But when the public sphere is dominated by information that is false, perhaps even deceptive, the capacity of the public to influence the train of events in rational directions diminishes. The report itself came at a fraught time in the diplomacy between North Korea and the United States and so was highly irresponsible. The Times report seemed to be part of a broader attempt, from both Left and Right, to scuttle diplomacy, a predictable consequence of which is a return to the nuclear dangers of 2017. The way in which the analytical report on North Korea’s missile operating bases was publicly represented constitutes a grave immoral act.

Another related aspect to the relationship between reality and representation is continued claims made in the public sphere regarding the reentry capability of North Korea’s long range missiles especially the Hwasong-15 ICBM. I am not taking this to mean a wilful misrepresentation, I would like to emphasise here. The gap between reality and representation here is more like that we find in the natural sciences.

One will often find statements in media reports stating that North Korea does not have a survivable ICBM reentry vehicle or has not demonstrated a survivable ICBM RV capability. Those two claims are not the same, but it is easy to assume that they are and so we can get a slide from the second to the first. The main pillar to the argument remains a Japanese TV video often said to show an RV from the July 28 Hwasong-14 test burning up off the coast of Japan. A superb deconstruction of that argument was recently published at armscontrolwonk, discussed in my previous post accessible below.

The US and other intelligence communities have their own assessment of this, but what matters here is what is presented to the public and what the public takes to be reality. Should the public believe the frequent representations that North Korea does not have a viable RV then it becomes that much easier to make the case for military action or the resumption of provocative military postures should the denuclearisation talks fail. Let us assume that the US IC assesses that North Korea does have a viable ICBM RV. Should Washington seek to keep both options, military strikes or provocations, open one would expect that the public representation of Pyongyang’s RV capabilities would be allowed to proceed uncontested in which case we would have a type of deception. In a democratic society first and foremost the intelligence community must serve the public; it should be an instrument that is designed to inform the public so that it takes rational attitudes to policy. Notice how, in reality, that’s not how intelligence works.

North Korean Warnings on Sanctions and the Recent Tactical Weapons Test

Pyongyang has issued several statements, either directly or indirectly, warning that it might resume strategic weapons testing should there be no progressive sanctions relief as denuclearisation proceeds. The US position appears to be all or nothing; irreversible and verified disarmament in exchange for the end of sanctions (which are quite reversible). All that has been superbly analysed by Robert Carlin at 38North with his latest commentary available here. I have little to add to Carlin’s renditions, with which I agree.

On November 16 North Korea tested what it touted as a tactical “ultra modern” weapon. Imagery of the weapon test is not available, all we have is a highly controlled picture of Kim Jong-un standing by senior state officials and military officers, and this has encouraged a lot of speculation both as to the weapon’s nature and to the meaning of its testing especially on Twitter. That too was superbly analysed by Carlin who charges that too many rushed to judgement on Twitter as to both questions especially the latter. Of this, I am as guilty as anyone, Twitter has both its charms and vices, but in my defence my speculations were on the weapon itself rather than the tests wider meaning.

That speculation on the weapon tested has tended to centre on three possibilities; a new long range artillery system, a new coastal defence cruise missile system, or a new surface-to-air missile system. We still don’t know what the go is here. My own initial speculation was a new SAM system, an upgraded version of the KN-06 SAM, partly designed for defence against tactical missiles. I don’t have any new information to share on this.

The more interesting speculations focused on the wider meaning behind the test. The purpose frequently given for the test was that it was supposed to further underscore Pyongyang’s warnings that absent progress on sanctions relief North Korea would return to strategic weapons testing. That claim had two versions, subtly different. The first was that it was a statement of its intention to resume strategic tests should talks with the US not make further progress. The second was that it was a further escalation in its warnings that it may resume strategic testing. These two statements are not the same. The first, often made in the media and, especially, on Twitter is surely false. This is because North Korea had already made that statement, directly and indirectly, more than once. Therefore, if the line of reasoning underpinning the majority position is correct the second claim better captures the situation. It was an escalation in North Korea’s warnings so we would have here Pyongyang riding a kind escalation ladder toward a resumption of strategic testing unless progress toward sanctions relief isn’t made.

That may well be true, but we must be careful about categorical statements regarding North Korean intentions. No matter how vigorously statements of intent are made the fact is that nobody publicly analysing developments on the Korean peninsula has special access into the intentions of the leadership in Pyongyang. There exists another interpretation of the meaning behind the weapons test, but it is not nowhere near as often made. That is, North Korea engaged in a tit-for-tat weapons test in response to US-South Korea (ROK) military drills previously suspended immediately after Singapore, the joint testing with Japan of the SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile defence interceptor off Hawaii, and the approval of large military sales to Japan. The latter included both SM-3 Block IA and SM-3 Block IIA interceptors, AIM-120C-7 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles, an increase in scope contract for Global Hawk drones, and the contracting of the fifth E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft. All of these were publicly acknowledged by North Korea in the lead up to the tactical weapons test, which at least leaves open the tit-for-tat possibility. I suspect that this possible aspect to the test was neglected because we know of North Korea’s warnings, and especially the tactical test which was widely reported in the media and discussed on Twitter, but we don’t know, oddly, nowhere near so much about our actions that irk North Korea. By ignoring the tit-for-tat possibility, what we really do is ignore the military actions of the United States and Japan the reality of which cannot be denied. Also, we could have missed this because everything that North Korea does is viewed through the prism of our obsession with all things nuclear. If denuclearisation is Washington’s obsession, then Japan is Pyongyang’s.

It could well be that a mixture of the two views underscores the meaning behind the tactical weapons test.

Diplomatic Developments

Following the midterm elections in the United States diplomacy has stalled so much so that their collapse has been widely cited as an imminent possibility, with two high level meetings between US and North Korean representatives not going ahead as planned. The most often cited reason for this is scheduling conflicts, which could well be the case, however it is also possible that a combination of North Korean displeasure regarding sanctions relief and the downgrading of North Korea’s importance in Washington accounts for this. If one holds the view that for Washington the summitry between Kim and Trump was, to a significant degree, a function of domestic US politics then, post midterms, Kim Jong-un doesn’t matter as much anymore for Trump. However, Trump’s rhetoric, especially about the great progress he has made on disarmament, most often citing the end of nuclear and missile testing in support, gives Pyongyang leverage. This Trumpian representation we know has very little to do with reality, but this mismatch between reality and representation gives Pyongyang some political leverage to exploit in its relations with Washington. This could have something to do with North Korea’s carefully calibrated warnings to resume testing.

I shall return to this theme by way of conclusion.

Even though we are in the first week of December we still don’t know whether a planned December visit by Kim Jong-un to Seoul will go ahead. Some cite personal security concerns (for Kim Jong-un that is) for this, some rather cite signs of friction between Pyongyang and Seoul even as they implement the military and economic aspects of the Panmunjom and Pyongyang declarations.

One interesting facet at work here concerns the South Korean concept of “sunshine” diplomacy. That was Kim Dae-jung’s way of characterising his thinking regarding opening to the North. The allusion is to the well known fable of the fury of the wind failing to dislodge the sitting man’s jacket as contrasted to the success of the sun in voluntarily inducing the man to part with his protective jacket. The United States has recently stated that South Korea should not allow the pace of inter-Korean rapprochement to outstrip the pace of denuclearisation. Putting aside the point that Washington’s actions contribute to the pace of denuclearisation, not just North Korea’s, there’s a little truth here that shows the sunshine policy cuts both ways. That is, North Korea has its own version of sunshine what we might call “juchshine.”

Let us take Juche to be a subjective state of mind that puts Korea first. What North Korea is doing, in part, is calling for Seoul to adopt a state of mind that puts Korea first, certainly first above the peculiar denuclearisation obsessions of Washington that it sees as impeding progress toward rapprochement on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang helps the South progress in this direction by doing enough on the nuclear front to placate external concerns about its nuclear programme. So long as the United States sticks to its all or nothing conception of nuclear diplomacy it is just such a state of mind that is needed to keep up the pace of detente and rapprochement on the Korean peninsula.

Notice that the official ideology of Washington is also Juche during the Trump era, only here it’s a subjective state of mind that puts America first. Now this similarity requires further comparison as it is deeper still. In a recent commentary North Korea unwittingly underscored one thing that both the US and North Korean propaganda systems agree on. That is, according to the commentary, “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the only country dynamically advancing along the road of socialism.”

This claim is functional for Pyongyang because it both underscores its uniqueness to its long suffering citizens but it also justifies their arduous march toward a utopian horizon. For the West the claim is functional for it supports a recurring propaganda theme namely that the only alternative to capitalist globalisation is Juche. It is interesting that North Korea in its propaganda often speaks of “socialism” but not “communism,” and this is surely related to the claim made in the commentary that as North Korea remains faithful to socialism “all the people have absolute worship for their leader, sharing the idea and intention and keeping step with him.” In Marxist-Leninist theory the continued presence of social hierarchies is more readily associated with socialism than communism. That is another way in which usage of socialism is functional for Pyongyang.

However, we can make a point deeper more. The commentary states;

In the DPRK the leader and the people become a harmonious whole which shares the same idea and intention, forming one socio-political integrated whole. The single-minded unity based on politico-ideological unity and cohesion is the crystal of strong faith that is unshakable in any storm and stress…
… The leader trusts in the people and loves them and the latter follow the former with intense loyalty. This is the true picture of the DPRK which is forming a harmonious whole

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It is not hard to see how this all fits with the Trumpian vision of Juche back home in America with the Suryong at the centre. Little wonder then that Trump fell in love with Kim. Just like Jerry Seinfeld, no?

We should note here the importance of an organic conception of society to this ideology, and the way it is related to the solidification of the centre and wider social hierarchies. This is based on the same philosophical ideas regarding the organic nature of collectivist entities that underpins fascism, Bolshevism, and corporate capitalism. In the latter case, nothing said here about the organic unity and hierarchy of social relations is alien to the idea of corporate personhood that underpinned the reorganisation of the corporate form and industrial capitalism in the progressive era of the late 19th century and which continues to dominate our societies. None of this has anything remotely to do with socialism nor of the enlightenment. This shared underlying philosophical basis to widespread social systems in my view had much to do with the appearance of protest movements across what appeared on the surface to be radically different societies at the same moment in 1968.

But, to conclude as promised. The United States is a global power, and it wouldn’t do to analyse US planning and action as if it were not a global power. What Washington does in one place can be highly influenced by what it plans to do in another. Our analysis of the diplomacy with North Korea rarely is couched within a global framework. On the weekend the US Secretary of State put out a statement on an Iranian ballistic missile test that was as false as it was bizarre. It claimed, for instance, that Iran is banned from missile activities involving missiles that are capable of delivering a nuclear weapon by UN Resolution 2231. In reality, UN 2231 calls upon this. It does not explicitly ban it as Mike Pompeo falsely claimed. Many have stated that the situation with Iran is reminiscent of the lead up the Iraq War in 2003 and that Washington is progressively making the case for a military campaign, most likely an air-maritime operation, against Iran.

This leads to me to a growing suspicion. If for North Korea the object of denuclearisation diplomacy is, in part, to give South Korea enough political capital for détente and enough to lower the intensity of sanctions while all the while it gets to keep its nuclear weapons for the United States the object of diplomacy is to, in part, do enough to maintain its all or nothing disarmament stance while all the same North Korea refrains from nuclear and missile testing. By keeping North Korea quiet, as it were, Washington settles one front whilst it prepares the ground for military strikes against Iran in another.

If that’s true, we have ourselves a grand deception do we not?