Will Fissile Materials Lead to a Fizzle Summit at Hanoi?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us return to the Stars and Stripes linked article above

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peanuts.