Reports continue to emphasise that the upcoming working level meetings between US and North Korean officials, following the third Kim-Trump meeting at Panmunjom, will discuss an interim Yongbyon plus deal involving what’s called a “nuclear freeze” for limited sanctions relief. It was The New York Times, we might recall, that let the cat out of the bag on that much to the chagrin of John Bolton. The timing and the venue of the working level meetings have not been set, however assuming the reports are accurately representing what Washington will offer Pyongyang we should lower expectations about a significant breakthrough (at least initially).
Yonhap News Agency has the latest report on this, and it’s pretty interesting. Washington is asking for the dismantlement of Yongbyon and a “freeze” on North Korea’s entire nuclear programme in exchange for the suspension of coal and textile sanctions, and moreover those sanctions would be snapback sanctions which stands to reason given the emphasis on suspension. North Korea is being asked to dismantle its entire Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for partial sanctions suspension. You only need to think of Iran’s experience with the JCPOA to see why that would be deeply problematical for Pyongyang. Furthermore, the verification regime accompanying the freeze is not clear. One assumes it would involve on the ground verification following a declaration of all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, including the ICBM production facility at Sanumdong in addition to the reported clandestine enrichment plant/s. Such a regime would not technically be necessary, but it is doubtful that Washington would settle for less. The snapbackable nature of the sanctions relief would act as leverage encouraging compliance with a potentially stringent verification regime. I don’t see this bird flying.
North Korea is being asked to offer more than what it offered at Hanoi, but it would not get anything extra in return. One can see why that might be the case. Even as the United States, Athens, moves (apparently) closer to the North Korean conception of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, i.e. a gradual and reciprocal step-by-step process involving more than just North Korea’s nuclear forces, it is important that North Korea, Melos, be seen to be caving to US demands. Opposition from liberal and neoconservative quarters to this following the Kim-Trump meeting at the DMZ isn’t about the tacit recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, rather it is about the credibility of US power. Melos is supposed to move to Athens’ position, not the other way around. The Trump-Pompeo-Biegun position on Yongbyon dismantlement plus a freeze, it seems to me, reflects and seeks to address those concerns. Whatever the modalities, I’d argue the key aspect to the Yonhap report is usage of “beginning” and “process.” That means Washington is moving toward Pyongyang’s “method of calculation” to quote the North Koreans at Hanoi. If true, that’s an important step in the right direction and the purpose of working level meetings, whatever the initial positions of the two parties are concerned, is to work toward a common position through the give and take of diplomacy. That’ll have to happen as I doubt that Pyongyang will buy Yongbyon+ for the price offered.
- United States Military Forces Korea [PDF] has published its 2019 Strategic Digest. It makes a noteworthy contrast between the Hwasong-14 ICBM and the Hwasong-15 ICBM. It states that the Hwasong-14 is “capable of reaching most of the United States.” Of the Hwasong-15 it states that it’s “capable of striking any part of the United States.” The emphasis is in the original. What I’d emphasis is the “reaching” for the HS-14 and the “striking” for the HS-15. That suggests that US military forces in South Korea assesses that the HS-15 has a functional Reentry Vehicle whereas the HS-14 does not. I suspect this is related to the kerfuffle over a video from Japanese TV news reportedly depicting the reentry of the Hwasong-14 (July 28, 2017 test) which some analysts, notably Michael Elleman, claim demonstrated that the RV burnt up. David Wright, Jeffrey Lewis, and James Acton had an impressive analysis suggesting otherwise.
- Markus Schiller has a paper published at Science and Global Security on North Korea’s missile development. I have yet to read the paper, but the abstract suggests that the paper is devoted to arguing North Korea’s post 2012 missile programme depended upon foreign assistance and foreign procurement. This is doubtless related to Schiller’s pre 2017 “bluff hypothesis” where he characterised North Korea’s missile programme as basically a bluff to leverage better relations with Washington. Well, the bluff hypothesis didn’t survive reentry into 2017. So, I suspect that Schiller is trying to explain why his characterisation of North Korea’s missile programme was a mischaracterisation. He was wrong then, and he’s wrong now because North Korea’s programme largely arose through indigenous research and development.
- The North Korean Institute for American Studies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a blistering attack, carried by KCNA, on South Korea on account of the delivery of two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters from the United States. This follows deliver of F-35A’s in March. The F-35A is envisaged to play an important role in South Korea’s preemptive decapitation strategy known as “kill chain,” and the IAS statement alludes to this when it says the F-35A is for “opening a ‘gate’ to invading the north in time of emergency on the Korean peninsula.” In other words, “aircraft like these will start the war.” Note in the 2019 Strategic Digest it states that the US and South Korea are pursuing joint technological developments “the more technologically advanced under co-development include…Weapons of Mass Destruction Elimination in Underground Facilities.” The North Korean statement includes this little line; “We, on our part, have no other choice but to develop and test the special armaments to completely destroy the lethal weapons reinforced in south Korea.” The arms race continues.
- Speaking of the 2019 Strategic Digest there’s a good map of the deployment pattern of the Korean Peoples Army at page 47. As the report states 70% of the KPA is deployed near the DMZ (to make it harder for the US-ROK to manoeuvre and encircle not necessarily to invade as commonly claimed) but look at the military assets associated with the motor rifle corps to the north of Pyongyang. Note the two axes. That’s interesting with respect to the reported flanking aspects of the Pentagon’s OPLAN-5015 which some have characterised as the “secret plan to destroy North Korea” in event of war or better still a severe crisis given that OPLAN-5015, reportedly, envisages preemptive strikes. It’s reported that beyond pre-emption OPLAN-5015, like its predecessor OPLAN-5027, plans to pincer Pyongyang through armour and mechanised infantry attacks from the south, east and possibly west following an Inchon style amphibious landing. Notice also how public support, according to the Strategic Digest, for the deployment of US forces in South Korea significantly declines should a joint declaration on the end of the Korean War be issued. Presumably that would decline even further should a formal peace treaty be agreed to. Previously, the United States has rejected, after Trump appears to have agreed to it at Singapore, a “declaration for declaration” interim deal involving Pyongyang declaring all its nuclear related facilities and assets in exchange for a joint declaration (but not formal treaty) on the end of the Korean War. One can see why.
- The developing crisis in the Persian Gulf following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, as we’ve already seen, is not unrelated to all this. The big news this week was Iran’s announcement that it will enrich up to 5% U-235, above the JCPOA limit of 3.7% U-235 and possibly even to 20% U-235 in the near future (for producing medical isotopes.) This has been characterised by the Trump administration and its acolytes as Iran hurtling to the bomb. One can see, by contrast, that it is a calibrated response to garner leverage, especially with respect to the Europeans who have pledged to compensate Iran for the losses it has occurred on account of US sanctions. The Europeans have set a redline regarding how far Iran can go as it leverages its enrichment activities. The Iranians have been told they are not to feed UF-6 feedstock into all 33 of its advanced IR-6 centrifuges. We hear a lot about breakout scenarios, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is the possibility, precisely because of Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and associated actions, that Iran will develop a clandestine enrichment plant (or plants) with its advanced centrifuges at the centrepiece of a military fuel cycle. The Iranians have been caught twice on this, but that was in the days well before the IR-6 which would enable smaller and more concealable facilities. Thus far we are tit-for-tatting our way to an Iranian bomb as we did with North Korea (a point long emphasised here). The thing is that Iran might develop its own version of the Byungjin line policy. A civil nuclear energy programme for the economic development of Iran (if not the development of Iran tout court), Tehran might calculate, requires a nuclear deterrent functioning as a shield behind which its vulnerable civilian nuclear assets sit behind.
- There’s an amazing short documentary composed of footage shot at Chernobyl in 1986 depicting the frantic efforts of the team to contain the immediate consequences of the nuclear reactor accident. It’s called Chernobyl 3828. At 23mins 56sec the liquidators, soldiers tasked with cleaning the top of the building of highly radioactive debris including from the core of the reactor, are thanked for their heroic service. They respond; “I serve the Soviet Union.”