What Happened at Hanoi, What You’re Supposed to Think Did, and What Should Happen Now

The New York Review of Books, excellent though it is, shares a certain quality with The New York Times excellent though it too is. The Review is something that the Western left liberal intelligentsia is supposed to read, and what’s more important it encapsulates what the bourgeois intelligentsia is supposed to think and how it is to interpret history and affairs. A very good example of the species can be found in an article on the denuclearisation talks with North Korea written by Jessica Mathews, What Happened at Hanoi, which doesn’t so much tell you what happened at Hanoi, quite the contrary it tells you what didn’t happen at Hanoi, as it tells you what you are supposed to think happened at Hanoi.

Mathews takes the story back to Singapore, as one should, of which she says; “Trump’s biggest concession in Singapore, for which he got nothing in return, was a unilateral decision to suspend joint US–South Korean military exercises.” She adamantly states it is a “fact” that “nothing was actually agreed at Singapore.” Odd, given Mathews also says Kim gave too little, and Trump too much.

Yet we know that something of a concrete nature was agreed at Singapore, namely that North Korea would dismantle its facility for static testing large liquid propelled missile and rocket engines at Tongchang-ri (Sohae) for, it appears, a declaration on the end of the Korean War (not to be confused with a formal peace treaty). North Korea hot on the heels of Singapore began to disassemble that facility. Therefore, something was agreed at Singapore. Matthews herself alludes to this when she writes, “satellite imagery made public days after the summit revealed that Pyongyang had begun to rebuild a missile test site it had partially dismantled after the June meeting.” North Korea began rebuilding the facility because Washington was not meeting its end of the bargain.

That is what, in part, happened at, and after, Singapore and even though the narrative presented by Mathews is inconsistent that is what the left liberal intelligentsia is not supposed to believe happened, as they don’t of course. The false narrative is precisely what the liberal intelligentsia believes happened because the herd of independent minds is so disciplined even ample, and easily attainable, evidence contrary to the party line is not sufficient to dispel belief in what has by now become dogma.

The bit about suspending military exercises is true enough, but it too fits within the ambit of what was agreed at Singapore. What happened at Singapore is that the US, temporarily, agreed to North Korea’s formulation of denuclearisation which included ending actions considered to be hostile such as large scale military exercises. You might want to include North Korean long range missile testing as falling within the ambit of this, even though North Korea announced the suspension of missile testing prior to Singapore. There’s a very good article on the value of suspending military exercises to facilitate diplomacy at 38North here. You will note that the 38North article displays far greater nuance and subtlety than can be found in the Review. That’s because you read 38North to know, whereas you read the Review to know what to think.

Mathews, basically, paints the following picture. Trump was had by Kim at Singapore, he over inflated the no deal Singapore summit and got caught red handed as satellite images revealed North Korea was still working on developing its nuclear forces, so he backtracked and went for the big all or nothing disarmament deal at Hanoi which Pyongyang was not ready to take.  Therefore, the Hanoi summit ended with no agreement just like the first one only this time Trump wasn’t had by Kim given that he recognised there are times when you have to walk.

That’s not what happened. Rather, the US accepted Pyongyang’s conception of denuclearisation at Singapore because Washington feared that it would be isolated from the diplomatic action in Northeast Asia, now one of the world’s most important regions, and because Trump put himself in a corner where he felt he needed a communique, any communique, to sell his going to Singapore in the first place.  Not long thereafter Washington reverted to its usual position of complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement as precondition for its own substantial concessions and that, partly, because the US is a global hegemonic power that does not, and should not be seen to, do deals on an equal basis with puny states like North Korea. That wouldn’t be the first time Washington signed on to something and then immediately violated it, even with North Korea. It also appears that Trump had little understanding of North Korea’s position on denuclearisation as a step-by-step process stopping short of actual disarmament.

In the interim period between Singapore and Hanoi we saw one manifestation of “gotcha culture” via satellite after another. The upshot of gotcha culture was that it helped foster a political atmosphere making it very difficult to proceed with a rational diplomatic process with a supposedly perfidious North Korea. Mike Pompeo himself alluded to this in his press conference with Trump at Hanoi where he stated to the media that should Trump have taken Kim’s offer of Yongbyon for partial sanctions relief they all would have written that he and Trump were weak and were had by Kim at Hanoi. The empire does not, and should not, cut a deal with mere pirates. That’s the position of the left liberal intelligentsia, so committed is it to the prerogatives of hegemonic power.

You only need read Jessica Mathews in The New York Review of Books to see that Pompeo had a point. There’s, of course, Trump’s own “the art of the deal” megalomania as well, something I have written about at other posts here and this administration’s own commitment to the requirements of power and prestige.

  • If you want to know what did happen at Hanoi I recommend this article at Reuters which shows that basically the US adopted the “Libya model” of disarmament which is not a serious negotiating position, certainly not with North Korea. Gaddafi had a dysfunctional and haphazard nuclear programme. Call Pyongyang’s nuclear programme what you will, dysfunctional and haphazard it is not.
  • Robert Carlin, in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, has broken his long post Hanoi hiatus. He, as usual, provides richly insightful comments however he disappointingly adheres to a position gaining currency among supporters of diplomacy including the eminent historian Bruce Cumings . Namely, that only Trump can go to Pyongyang but is being thwarted by his advisers, Bolton and Pompeo in particular, who take advantage of his naïve Mr Smith goes to Washington innocence. It’s a bit like the Reaganite line that bar for Reagan’s advisers, and Gorbachev’s stance on SDI, we’d be living in a nuclear disarmed world today. Supporters of diplomacy should be supporting a progressive candidate for President arising from a popular base, like Bernie Sanders, who have expressed a desire to help bring peace and security to the Korean peninsula (but also elsewhere). The best way for analysts to help that process along is by working to change the narrative on weird little perfidious North Korea, which is probably why The New York Times et al work so hard to maintain it. Much rides on the ability of the grass roots revolt shaking Democrat party politics reaching maturity and fruition come election time.
  • The Missile Defense Agency conducted a high profile test, FTG-11, of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system. GMD is meant to address the North Korean ICBM threat. FTG-11 was significant because it was the first operational, as opposed to developmental, test of GMD. Specifically, it was, firstly, billed as a test of the salvo concept of operations founded on the mathematics of damage expectancy, and secondly it was billed as a demonstration of the discrimination abilities of the system. The test, according to the MDA, was successful and demonstrated that the system did what it was designed to do, and that it demonstrates a credible deterrent against a very real threat. FTG-11 consisted of the salvo firing of two GBI interceptors launched less than a minute apart; the first deployed an EKV that destroyed the warhead of an ICBM representative, i.e. threat representative, target and the second deployed an EKV that discriminated objects in the debris field created by the first interception and struck the next most threatening object. It is clear from MDA statements that FTG-11 did not involve countermeasures of the type North Korea would employ in a real world attack. The Hwasong-15 ICBM has an RV with a lot of volume, and North Korea has successfully developed a relatively miniaturised (relative to the volume of the RV) thermonuclear warhead. There is a brilliant analysis of this, including with respect to the mathematics of damage expectancy, at Mostlymissiledefense the best independent resource on the technical aspects of missile defence besides what can be found at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The analysis there is based on two crucial points. First, at the empirical level, FTG-11 did not demonstrate the viability of the salvo doctrine because it did not employ countermeasures which is precisely what the salvo doctrine, in part, is meant to address. The key aspect of FTG-11 was in the second intercept of which, the above linked post points out; “strictly speaking, the test did demonstrate that the GMD system could intercept a target resembling a warhead against a field of debris, none of which resembles a warhead.” That’s not threat representative. Secondly, although the mathematics of damage expectancy are computationally sound the physical limitations of missile defence in the presence of countermeasures undermines the salvo doctrine “because if a countermeasure (and not an interceptor reliability problem) causes the first interceptor to fail, then there is a substantial probability that the countermeasure will also cause subsequent interceptors to fail.” In the presence of countermeasures the probability of a successful intercept is appreciably less than an intercept involving no countermeasures, and a second interceptor has a, slightly, greater chance of hitting a warhead only because there is one less countermeasure relative to the warhead than encountered by the first. That means FTG-11 did not demonstrate that GMD provides a credible deterrent against a very real threat.
  • Most of the discussion on the limitations of missile defence, from way back to the Nixon administration, focuses on the physics of missile defence especially the matter of countermeasures when referring to exoatmospheric i.e. midcourse interception. However, there are also mathematical limitations too something the mathematics of damage expectancy behind the salvo doctrine tends to make us forget. The best discussion on this, with reference to mathematics and computer science, can be found in the work of Rebecca Slayton, especially her book Arguments That Count where she analyses this with great care and detail.
  • On the mathematics of BMD damage expectancy, I’ve always relied on an old Adelphi Paper from Dean Wilkening. If you want to see an independent derivation focusing on salvo operations check out Ben Chia’s twitter feed.
  • The thing about FTG-11 is that the widespread positive coverage tends to provide misplaced assurance in the ability of the system to meet the North Korean nuclear threat. Furthermore, such misplaced assurances sit alongside remarks, still being made by various and sundry, that North Korea has not yet demonstrated a reliable capability to strike the U.S. with an ICBM. We’ve spent a good time talking about the failure of the Hanoi summit, and misplaced assurance in the capability of missile defence and the continued assertions regarding North Korea’s strike capabilities can provide a dangerous public perception that there exists a rational military option to denuclearise North Korea. These assertions need to be constantly challenged. Interestingly, as in the MDA statement above, the reality of North Korea’s long range nuclear strike capabilities are emphasised by officials when it suits them.
  • We’ve seen reports that President Trump tried to reverse US Treasury sanctions against two Chinese shipping entities for trading with North Korea, but this was then covered up by the administration which, falsely, claimed that trump sought to reverse even bigger sanctions planned for the week thereafter not the Treasury sanctions just enacted. This demonstrates a level of dysfunction in the administration, which isn’t necessarily news unfortunately. One thing we continue to ignore about the economic sanctions on North Korea is their humanitarian impact. Is it a breach of human rights to place and enforce sanctions that affect the hungry population of a totalitarian state because of the policy pursued by its government? In the kerfuffle over sanctions in the past fortnight Trump stated that the North Koreans are suffering a great deal, and that’s the statement on sanctions that everybody passed over as if it’s of no consequence. The question above, in my opinion, should be the central question on sanctions.
  • North Korea, via a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement carried by KCNA, provided the first official response to the February 22 attack on its Madrid embassy. Pyongyang called it a “ grave terrorist attack” and stated that it is watching closely the discussion on the extent to which the FBI was complicit. North Korea is doubtless in possession of its own intelligence on this, and we don’t know what they know. Their perception would be important, however, as FBI complicity would be a violation of the terms of the Singapore communique. In the absence of hard intelligence on the pre and post attack involvement of the FBI one suspects North Korea’s perception would be of US involvement. April 15 marks the Day of the Sun, Kim Il-sung’s birthday, and the day (or days after) might see a space launch from Sohae and perhaps even ICBMs on parade at Kim Il-sung square. This will be an interesting period for North Korea analysts.
  • 38North has satellite imagery demonstrating activity from mid to late March at the Experimental Light Water Reactor at Yongbyon. It is not clear what implications can be drawn from this. According to the analysis there exists, and has been, minimal activity elsewhere at Yongbyon. Kim Jong-un in his new year address spoke of North Korea working in 2019 to pursue its nuclear energy programme. The energy problem, as Pyongyang calls it, is perhaps North Korea’s most pressing immediate economic policy concern. North Korea has a good supply of uranium and nuclear power may be considered a promising route to achieve a measure of energy security, especially in the context of sanctions. That would suggest that the ELWR and nuclear power, including uranium enrichment, are not part of North Korea’s conception of denuclearisation. It certainly is part of Washington’s conception.
  • Andrei Lankov has an interesting article at NK News on North Korea’s foreign policy, where he argues Pyongyang has boxed itself into a tight spot, of its own making, and is struggling to manoeuvre out of it. He might be right about that. A comparison with Iran might be drawn. Tehran appears to be waiting out the Trump administration, despite Washington’s hostile policy and Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Pyongyang probably would have conducted a bomb test, or two, by now if in Tehran’s position. Iran might gain more than North Korea in the long run because of this. Perhaps Pyongyang might do something along similar lines; improve relations with China, Russia, and South Korea by resisting the temptation to go nuclear, as it were, and wait out the moronic hustler for something better. That hasn’t been North Korea’s style hitherto, it must be said, so the coming period will be interesting to see which way Pyongyang goes from here. This is pretty important because it might say something about the rationality of North Korea’s policy making.
  • A key factor in the above will be South Korean attitudes and actions. Will Seoul continue to improve relations with Pyongyang despite the lack of progress on the denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea? There’s an excellent analysis of the regional dynamics post Hanoi at 38North which I highly recommend. The regional context is super important, but gets too short a shrift given the nuclear obsession far too often exhibited in the public sphere.
  • Finally, as kinda promised in the title, what now? What should be pursued now is what should have been pursued from the beginning. Namely, the process of rapprochement and détente on the Korean peninsula should be led by Koreans and the role of outsiders should be to support and facilitate that process rather than to undermine it by making progress contingent on unrealistic demands regarding the nature and pace of North Korean disarmament. Making it contingent on unrealistic demands of disarmament serves the needs of hegemonic power because it reminds the world that Washington takes its prestige as the preeminent global power seriously, and secondly it seeks to remind the world that Washington remains “the indispensable nation” without which nothing of consequence can happen. Both theses find ready support in the liberal intelligentsia, as they always have. That’s why an outbreak of democracy, Sanders style, rather than a moronic hustler masquerading as a naïve and shackled Forrest Gump, remains the best hope for the future.