August Roundup: The Current (Dis-)Equilibrium



It is that sad time of summer when the end of vacation and return to work looms like an executioner. After the Sturm and Drang of “fire and fury” we are back to the equilibrium that preceded it, but with a lot of subtle developments. My sense is that the status quo is not sustainable. But whether it will break positively toward negotiations or back toward the new Cold War standoff is far from clear yet. Following is a late August roundup based on the thoughtful, and less-than-thoughtful, things being said at the moment and linking to a number of our posts over the last month dissecting the run-up and fall-off of tensions.

First up, there is continuing debate about the underlying military picture, set in train by a must-read piece by Ted Postol, Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Their conclusion on North Korea’s ICBM: “not yet.” Their claim does not rest on the difficulty-of-re-entry argument. Rather, they note that the tests were conducted with a dramatically reduced payload, extending their apparent range but not reflecting actual capabilities. The piece has a very useful discussion of likely bomb weights—a key parameter in the controversy over range—drawing on countries at parallel phases in their nuclear development.

Yet in fact the piece delivers a very mixed message, because it also shows the progress the country has made on engine design. They reach the conclusion that the tests were “a carefully choreographed deception,” a finding that was even blown up to the status of “hoax” when the piece was reported in the media. But the speed at which they are moving, and the fact that they are pursuing not only an intercontinental but a variety of other options, makes the piece cold comfort to me. See for example the NTI analysis of the Hwasong 12 here and the yet-to-be-digested claims about other capabilities breaking this week in the The New York Times. And of course, the North Koreans are continuing the high rhetorical pitch, with the release of a new propaganda video taunting Trump by once again bringing up Guam

Kudos to the Times also for its concise statement of the technological issues.

Next on the agenda, what US strategy is and should be. I have argued that there is a coherent approach, and it has been outlined by Tillerson (see here and here): sanctions pressure coupled with a stated willingness to negotiate. The wild card is the question of how useful it is to have the President and other members of his team also talking about military options. Trump himself obviously thinks so; in his Arizona speech he opined as follows: “But Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much (sic).” Patrick Cronin at Real Clear Defense makes a reasoned case that it helps, but primarily by emphasizing the deterrent. But that is not exactly the problem at the moment; we are talking about preventive and pre-emptive options as well. John DeLury at Foreign Affairs makes the case that we should explicitly take these options off the table in order to provide assurances. I have expressed concern about the destabilizing effects of two nuclear powers both talking about pre-emption. But that does not mean DeLury is right, in part because the option cannot be taken off the table as long as we have the capability and North Korean nuclear doctrine is confusing.

Which brings me to the last piece: the negotiations-sanctions dance. Not only is Tillerson really pushing the negotiation line, going so far—indeed too far—in praising North Korean restraint. In one of the clearest signs that the administration continues to wander off script is great reporting from Anna Fifield at the Washington Post tracking exactly what the military is saying about the issue. Surprise, surprise: a number of high-ranking officers are saying on the record that diplomacy is the way out.

The administration has been clear, though, that the path to negotiations lies through more sanctions because of the need to change North Korea’s aversion to talks. For those skeptical about whether negotiations can work, Lee Sigal provides a history lesson at 38North.

I am convinced that the win at the Security Council was caused in part by looming secondary sanctions. In a transactional world, perhaps Beijing believed that if they played along—ultimately maintaining discretion on enforcement—that it would ease both wider economic pressures and secondary sanctions. But this misread the Russia, Iran, North Korea sanctions bill, which contains quite explicit mandatory secondary sanctions. Treasury made the first real move this week, and it was not small ball; the press release is here, the list of designated entities here. As always, the designations that matter are not the North Korean individuals and entities, largely beyond US reach, but the secondary sanctions on Chinese and Russian actors.

First and foremost is the naming of both Chi Yupeng and his Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Ltd. Rather than replay the significance of this designation, I will just direct you to more excellent journalism at the Washington Post, this time by Peter Whoriskey who has been following the Dandong Zhicheng case building on more excellent open-source research by C4ADS (See here and here). The real indicator that this designation was significant, however, came from the virulence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs response. There is a case that the administration should go directly to China with these cases and let them handle them, which is what MOFA was pleading for. But in the end, the scale at which Dandong Zhicheng has been operating warrants a shot across the bow on endless Chinese enabling of North Korean capabilities. 

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