Trump is Trying to Block Moves Toward Peace in Korea

In many respects the summitry and working level meetings between North and South Korea can be seen as a series of steps toward the implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration, and the emphasis has been on achieving inter-Korean détente and rapprochement through pursuing strategic stability and greater economic integration. The push now is very much action based with fundamental principles having been agreed at Panmunjom. The third aspect to this process, denuclearisation, is best seen as supporting the first two as it is understood that inter-Korean rapprochement requires attending to US concerns. The fifth inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang further amplifies these themes, and what has happened subsequent to it is consistent with this picture of things.

That third, nuclear, aspect gives the United States, should it wish the potential to block progress to the extent that it steadfastly holds to its conception of complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement of all North Korea’s nuclear weapons, long range missiles, and nuclear infrastructure. That is exactly what is happening, however the two Koreas have the option of ignoring this, hitherto they kind of are, and moving ahead anyway. The problem with this is that the US is powerful, and it has leverage, especially economic, that could undo the process.

Although denuclearisation is the third priority, notice that in joint North-South communiques it is invariably mentioned last, Seoul needs to emphasise denuclearisation because the United States is a security ally and it is understood that economic integration, to whatever depth or degree, requires US support. Furthermore, the liberal administration of Moon Jae-in needs to meet the threat to its domestic flank from conservative forces opposed to its diplomacy with the North. Pyongyang, in turn, understands that it needs to support Seoul, for these reasons, and it needs to make certain denuclearisation moves, or gestures, to provide political space for its interlocutor. Also, Pyongyang knows that the United States can use denuclearisation to block Korean détente and so it too has an interest in coming to an accommodation with the United States on the nuclear front, but not in a way that leaves it vulnerable to a US attack in future.

Strategic Stability

The Pyongyang Declaration had a definite emphasis on achieving strategic stability, and that not just as an end, but as a crucial step toward a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula. It is interesting to observe US reactions, and not just official either. Right after the Summit one could detect in media commentary displeasure with the agreements reached on strategic stability, and it is interesting to see the degree toward which Washington has expressed its opposition to subsequent attempts to implement them. There has been movement since the fifth summit on rejuvenating a joint military commission (the pictures of officers from North and South shaking hands were fascinating in that the respective officers are dressed in uniforms much like Soviet and American ones), suspending military exercises, the removal of land mines and guard posts within the DMZ, and a no-fly zone over the DMZ.

The United States has expressed opposition to the no-fly zone, which is to come into effect on November 01. Washington has argued that this will diminish defence readiness, but in reality the Trump administration opposes tangible progress in inter-Korean détente until North Korea agrees to CVID. This is irrational because the reduction of military tensions, and increasing stability along the DMZ, enhances security as the frozen war along that Zone (and its maritime equivalent) is the key source of insecurity and nuclear crisis dynamics on the Korean peninsula. The no-fly zone is important in that respect as it keeps aircraft from aggressively approaching the border with the North, which is of concern to planners in Pyongyang as airpower is a crucial means of suppressing KPA artillery deployed along the DMZ. That being the case, anything that contributes to strategic stability is good as it lowers the risk of nuclear war. Yet Washington insists upon CVID, something Pyongyang has never and will never agree to, and which has always been used, from Bush onward, not as a negotiating position but rather to block diplomacy. Reports over the last few days suggest that Pompeo at the October 07 meeting in Pyongyang added biological and chemical weapons into the CVID mix, as if to underscore the point.

Now CVID is being used to block something which lowers nuclear danger, strategic stability, in the name of lowering nuclear danger. Not only is that irrational, from a nuclear security perspective, but it demonstrates how the Trump administration uses its unrealistic conception of nuclear disarmament to block Korean rapprochement.

I have long argued here that the rational approach with regard to nuclear security is to achieve what can be achieved on denuclearisation, and what can be achieved is not a matter to be determined a priori through armchair analysis but rather empirically through negotiation, whilst tackling the underlying source of insecurity through conventional strategic stability, similar to something like the CFE, as a step toward a formal peace on the Korean peninsula. Some have argued for something similar, namely that Washington must accept North Korea’s nuclear status and it should settle for maintaining nuclear security through deterrence. I’m given to understanding that this position is known as the “team deterrence” view. The “team deterrence” position is good because it means CVID no longer blocks peace in Korea, however it is by no means obvious that it contributes to strategic stability.

As things are “deterrence” has little to do with deterrence. What we see is the augmentation of Ballistic Missile Defence in the region, which is not consistent with a posture of deterrence, and it is likely that BMD will continue to evolve both in Asia and in the United States. Furthermore, graduated intra-war deterrence has dominated US strategic thinking for a long time and it is to be expected that this will continue, especially for contingencies involving regional nuclear states like North Korea. Applying intra-war deterrence to specific regional contingencies is what tailored deterrence basically amounts to. I have argued for that construal of tailored deterrence from the Bush administration onward. Tailored deterrence was a strategic concept that underpinned both the Bush and Trump Nuclear Posture Reviews. Indeed, the proposal for a low yield version of the Trident warhead (W76-2) arising from the Trump NPR should be seen in the context of graduated escalation control and tailored deterrence. In other words, under “team deterrence” what we will see is attempts by Washington to achieve a first strike capability and that will put pressure on planners in the KPA to respond to maintain the credibility of its deterrent.

That isn’t exactly strategic stability. For “team deterrence” to work deterrence must be about deterrence, not something else. That will require some measure of “denuclearisation,” not to be confused with disarmament, on both sides. Taking that proviso on board, surely the “team deterrence” view is a wise one.

North Korean concerns about the vulnerability of the KPA strategic rocket forces has seemingly influenced the denuclearisation negotiations. For example, there has been much talk about the possibility of an exchange of declarations. North Korea would declare its nuclear inventory, number of warheads, type and location of nuclear facilities and the like, in exchange for a declaration on the end of the Korean War. In the October 07 meeting between Mike Pompeo and Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang it was reported that Pompeo asked for a full nuclear inventory declaration, but Kim Jong-un refused having, reportedly, earlier suggested this. Recent media reports, based on sources from the intelligence community, claimed that the US could see (some) North Korean warheads being transported after assembly. Could these reports have spooked KPA planners?

Whatever ambiguity North Korea possesses about the size of its nuclear stockpile and location of its nuclear infrastructure would be lost should it issue such a declaration prior to any meaningful concession from the US side. A similar declaration made by Saddam Hussein to Hans Blix didn’t prevent the invasion of Iraq, for instance. Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that at Singapore President Trump told Kim Jong-un that he would agree to the issuing of a declaration ending the Korean War in exchange for dismantling the missile/rocket engine testing facility at Sohae. It’s interesting to see how quickly we have forgotten this.

Dismantling Yongbyon

One interesting facet to the Pyongyang Summit was the North Korean statement that it would dismantle Yongbyon, it was not clear whether that meant the plutonium production reactor and the plutonium reprocessing facility or the entire site including the experimental light water reactor, in return for some unspecified US concession. According to Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, this would be a significant step toward denuclearisation because

That is a big deal; it would be a major positive, signal that they are serious. Because without plutonium, they will really not be able to have major improvements in their nuclear weapons program.

It would also offer the opportunity for US and North Korean scientists to work on cooperative threat reduction, according to Hecker. In addition, the Yongbyon reactor is a ticking time bomb in and of itself.

The Yongbyon offer leads one to question some of our assumptions about the North Korean nuclear programme. Why would North Korea make such an offer, assuming denuclearisation is the same thing as nuclear disarmament and it is “mass producing” warheads and missiles according to Kim’s 2018 new year address? I have speculated on this previously.

Granted North Korea appears to have an efficient design for both a fission bomb and fissile primary for a hydrogen bomb, and it likely uses a composite fissile core both of which means it can extract more bang out of a given stock of plutonium than it would otherwise. But still, the Yongbyon offer is puzzling. The 5MWe reactor isn’t a big reactor and it appears that, although it has been operating and had minor shutdowns, no plutonium has been extracted from the core since 2015.

According to an August 2018 IAEA report

During the reporting period there have been indications consistent with the reactor’s operation, including steam discharges and the outflow of cooling water. Since December 2015, when the current operational cycle started, there have been indications consistent with several short periods of reactor shutdown. However, none of these periods were of sufficient duration for the complete reactor core to have been discharged. The Agency’s observations indicate that the current operational cycle is longer than the previous one

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I can think of two reasons off the bat why North Korea might have made such an offer (assuming denuclearisation is not disarmament, recall). First, North Korea has enough plutonium for its strategic needs. Second, North Korea has a clandestine plutonium production reactor and plutonium separation facility. We know that North Korea has attempted to build a clandestine 5MWe gas cooled graphite moderated reactor before, the al Kibar reactor in Syria.

Our knowledge of the al Kibar reactor came from a number of sources, most significantly from human intelligence sources and environmental sampling. HUMINT was made all the more easier because it was an international project. My memories of al Kibar was that for a little while there was quite the debate in the open source intelligence community about whether al Kibar really was a nuclear reactor. The Institute for Science and International Security claimed it to be, but my memory of all this was that ISIS (the bad ISIS, the other ISIS is the ugly ISIS. There isn’t a good ISIS) had information from inside the Bush administration that helped it make that call. It was by no means clear from OSINT alone that al Kibar was a reactor. This leads to a counterfactual; would national technical means of verification alone enabled the catching out of al Kibar prior to its going critical? In the 1990s the US suspected that North Korea was developing a clandestine plutonium production reactor at Kumchang-ri. That was fake news, as we now say, but that hole in the mountain might have, to the extent that the lesson was necessary, taught North Korea what not to do. A lesson it may have incorporated at al Kibar, perhaps also elsewhere closer to home. Surely it would have been easier for Pyongyang to build a clandestine plutonium production reactor in North Korea than it would internationally in Syria.

We kind of know that North Korea has, at least one, clandestine enrichment facility. Those, seeming, composite fissile cores could mean it has a clandestine plutonium production reactor too, and for some of the same reasons.

Anyway, enough of the speculation.

Economic Integration and Sanctions

In mid October North and South Korea agreed to reconnect road and rail links cut by the Korean War. That too, is an implementation measure following in principle agreement on building greater economic ties between North and South. This is especially significant, much greater than whatever impact it will have on the GDP of both countries (marginal), because it is a measure designed to promote the economic integration of the Korean peninsula and with it the economic integration of Northeast Asia. The United States has expressed its opposition to this too, stating it goes against the “maximum pressure” economic sanctions on the North which should only be let up after, you guessed it, North Korea agrees to and implements CVID.

The United States has threatened to block such moves toward economic integration in an interesting way, that is through leverage provided by its dominance of the global financial system. Integrative projects need to be financed, not a problem for South Korean banks, however the United States has threatened to impose secondary boycotts on South Korean finance corporations that do business with North Korea. The impact that these can have is demonstrated in the case of Iran following Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.

North Korea, for its part, has upped the ante on sanctions elevating sanctions relief as its key demand upon the United States. In recent days there have been a few KCNA statements and North Korean press commentaries calling for an alleviation of sanctions, and we have seen direct criticism made of President Trump for the first time since the Singapore Summit. This has been expertly analysed by Robert Carlin at 38North. If you have an interest in this topic you should read that article, because that’s an article written by someone who knows their stuff.

This all means the United States is using CVID to block moves toward not just strategic stability on the Korean peninsula but also attempts at economic integration. I submit that our obsession in the West with the nuclear aspect of developments in the Korean peninsula enables this. John Mueller has an interesting article at Foreign Affairs on what he calls our “nuclear hysteria.” Mueller has long argued that a certain “atomic obsession” has distorted international relations, causing more trouble than it purportedly seeks to solve. Whatever you might make of the Mueller thesis, it certainly does apply here for a certain nuclear hysteria, borne out of a view regarding the rationality of North Korea’s nuclear planning, is itself irrational and it leads to irrational outcomes. Irrational is meant in terms of nuclear security, not necessarily considerations of power although it may well apply here too.

So, what gives on all the hoopla surrounding the Singapore Summit and its aftermath? My own view has been that it mainly functions as a type of Twitter politics that characterises the Trump era. Glitz and glamour are focused upon the Trump personality cult, one of history’s more absurd, as the swashbuckling deal maker claims to do what the hated Obama one couldn’t do. In the meantime, the most reactionary elements of the Republican Party are busy further enriching and empowering a tiny elite at the top of US society, something we don’t notice because for us the Trump administration is something that happens on Twitter and Fox News. Substantively Trump’s position hasn’t changed; it’s CVID or maximum pressure. What progress is being made toward peace and coexistence on the Korean peninsula Washington is trying to block and that on the back of our nuclear hysteria. But in the virtual reality of Trump land the Orange one is promoting, and achieving, peace in Korea.

Most Koreans, North and South, hold Washington responsible for the 38th parallel that divides Korea. Hard to believe, even I was surprised to learn of it. Now the United States might end up being accused of blocking indigenous attempts at achieving rapprochement. Certainly, thus far, that is what the Trump administration has been trying to do. I don’t believe that this is something Americans want to see happen. Should Trump succeed we might end back where we were in 2017, if not in an even more perilous situation.

But there’ll be an added twist. Trump will likely blame China for this. Danny Stillman and Thomas Reed, both former Los Alamos insiders, wrote a book, The Nuclear Express, during the Bush administration that had fascinating tidbits about the bomb but an absurd thesis. Namely, if a jihadi nuclear device were to be detonated in a US city it would probably have something to do with China. Absurdist fantasy, but the type that wrecked a country and a region for at least a generation.

Attributing a North Korean airburst over a US city to China, however, would be so much more believable. Certainly on Fox and Friends it would be.